Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sign Me Up!

“Youths or young men who feel a strong desire to toil for the souls of heathen people and who are willing to go afar with no hope of earthly recompense and with no guarantee of a return to their native land are encouraged to write, making their letter personal, to the Editor of Field Afar.”

This 'call to vocations' was printed in 1911 by James A. Walsh, M.M., editor of the Field Afar. It was a call to join the Maryknoll congregation for foreign missions. The complete story can be found at America here.

Two things struck me when reading this.

The first was that joining the Army has always seemed to have parallels to entering religious life: it is a life of work and discipline, of hierarchy, of living by a code of conduct, in community, sacrificing for a common (and higher) purpose, etc.

The second thing that I thought about was how much the 'marketing' has changed for the Army since the World Wars. I run into a lot of Armed Forces recruiters at college fairs, and it seems there has been a shift from serving (and dying for) your country because its patriotic, to, "you can earn money for college!" They are catering to a self-serving generation less familiar with the idealism of serving for a common, collective purpose. (One of my favorite papers in graduate school was by William Cavanaugh, titled "Dying for the Telephone Company." kind of relates here.)

Just reading the above quote about "toiling for heathen souls...with no earthly recompense and no guarantee of return," I couldn't help thinking, "who in this generation would take up that offer?" It's no wonder why people living in a "what's in it for me?" age are not joining religious communities.

This applies to marriage as well. If marriage and the family truly is the building block of society, that suggests there is an irrefutable 'social' component of marriage--that is, a healthy society is built on healthy families. The majority of our families in the West are not healthy, and as a result, our society suffers. That means marriage is not just about 'you and me,' but about the good of society, as well.

Now, few people get married 'for the sake of society.' They get married for themselves or for their families--sometimes out of love, sometimes out of obligation (as in arranged marriages). But the residual effect of this marriage bleeds out into the social fabric inadvertently. Marriages that break up are not just rifts between two people, but they tear at the fabric of society as a whole.

Think of a National Forest that has signs posted everywhere "DO NOT LIGHT FIRES." For the collective good of all, somebody (the U.S. Forest Service) takes precautions so the forest doesn't burn down because of the carelessness of one person. Does this mean that starting a campfire for one's own pleasure is going to burn down the whole forest? Not necessarily. One might be responsible, watching it carefully, building a fire ring, dousing it with water to make sure its out. But the more people who disobey the rules--ie, if the signs are taken down, or generally ignored-- the greater the chance of the destruction of the forest as a whole.

I honestly don't get a good feeling about the direction our post-modern society is headed as it gets more individualistic and relativistic. Less people willing to join "God's Army," and live by an established set of moral guidelines spells disaster for future generations. "Sometimes a way seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death."

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Rosary Reflections as an Expecting Parent

While praying the rosary this afternoon and meditating on the Joyful mysteries, each one held a special meaning for me now as an expecting parent. I thought I would share some of the things that came to me in prayer:

The First Joyful Mystery: The Annunciation

Mary said yes--"let it be done to me according to your word." What if she would have aborted? Always an option. Yet Mother Teresa said, "it is a poverty that a child must die so that you may live as you wish." Mary did not ask to be the Mother of God. She was chosen. She forfeited her idea of her life for a greater purpose. Lord, help me to do the same.


The Second Joyful Mystery: The Visitation

I don't know how many months pregnant Mary was when she visited her cousin Elizabeth, but the journey was at least eighty miles and would have taken multiple days. How easy would it have been for Mary, bearing such 'precious cargo' in her womb, to say, "I shouldn't go anywhere...what if something bad happens along the way? Best to just stay put." Mary was not fearful. She "hurried" to see Elizabeth, as much to be among one who believed in God's plan for her, as to pay visitation. Lord, don't let me live in fear, and help us to be surrounded by spiritual mentors who are strong in faith and courage, who will help us raise a child in the right ways.


The Third Joyful Mystery: The Nativity

Jesus was born without a nursery, a proper crib, or disposable diapers. And yet he grew up healthy and strong. When we get lambasted by the baby marketing, Lord, help me keep your lowly birth in mind.


The Fourth Joyful Mystery: The Presentation in the Temple

In accordance with the Law, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple to be consecrated to the Lord. This 'offering up' in obedience to the Law reminds me how I must offer up my idea of using artificial contraception in our marriage, based on the teaching of the Church. I am still divided, yet the more I pray, the more I feel my desire to trust God, and not my own will, growing. It's like trusting a parent--sometimes you don't know why they tell you to do the things they do, but you trust that it is in your best interest. I am still nervous about it, but Lord, help me to consecrate my will to You.


The Fifth Joyful Mystery: The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple

I still remember when we thought my brother was lost, when he was little. Turns out he was asleep in the top bunk, while our family scoured the neighborhood in a panic. When I came back to the house and found him, the relief was profound. Since then I have had a fear of 'losing' my own child, and do not like crowded places for this reason (that scene in Crazy Heart when Jeff Bridges loses the little boy in the mall was hard for me to watch). Jesus, twelve years old, wandered off in Jerusalem away from his parents. I feel the panic, the feeling of loss of control, Mary and Joseph must have had. And yet, in the end, they found him. Lord, watch over our child when he wanders from us, and from you.

Friday, April 29, 2011

There Is No In-Between

"You cannot be a half a saint. You must be a whole saint, or no saint at all." -St. Therese of Lisieux


When Jesus was crucified, the soldiers divided his garments, each taking a piece. But his coat was seamless, and rather than divide it, they cast lots to see who would get it. Kind of like having a dollar bill to split among two people. If you rip it in half to divide ("you get half, and you get half--it's the only fair way!"), it becomes worthless. It needs to go to either one or the other.

Ever since watching Francis Chan's sermon on being "Lukewarm and Loving It," I have been thinking about God's all-or-nothing attitude towards how we live. Chan's sermon focuses on what is written in Revelation 3:16: "So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth." When it comes to what God wants from us, it seems, it is all or nothing.

But how often we live in the in-between! The more God reveals himself to me, the more I see this is not a place to live. It seems our attitude is "I'll give God a little, and I'll get a little God. That should suffice." Anything else is seen as extremism.

Jesus, however, makes constant reference to this all-or-nothing attitude, and in a way that says "This is how I want you to live":

Matthew 5:13: "You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men."

Luke 9:62: "But Jesus said to him, "No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."

Matthew 13:46: "...and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it."

You're either salty, or you're not.
You're either plowing, or you're not.
You're either buying, or you're not.

You're either a disciple, or you're not.

This last one is the hardest for me, because I want to be a 'sometimes' disciple. I want to follow Jesus, but I also want to go where I want also. I don't want to be anyone's slave, doing what I don't want to be doing. I want to follow Jesus, but I don't necessarily want to die doing it.

One wouldn't call themselves a Marine unless they had been through everything to earn that title. But people call themselves "Christian" all the time without having gone through the dying to self that Christ calls us to--myself included. "Why do you call me Lord and do not do what I say?" Therefore it seems there is a difference between being a Christian and being a disciple. Christians profess Christ. Disciples follow Christ. There is no in between.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday Reflection

A man was carrying his cross. He said to the Lord, "Lord, this cross is too big for me to carry. Please make it shorter." So the Lord obliged him, and sawed twelve inches off the bottom of the man's cross. When the man got to a great chasm, the others around him, who were also carrying their cross, laid them across the chasm and walked over it as if they were crossing on a bridge. But when the man laid his cross down to do the same, his came up a foot short. He could not cross.




Friday, April 8, 2011

My New Mistress

In Matthew 26:40 we see Jesus resisting temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the disciples falling headfirst into it. Jesus asked his friends to "keep watch" with him, and yet they were unable to do so. In this case, sleep was the siren temptress that got the better of them and kept them from doing what the Lord asked them to do.

Most people would not think of sleep as detrimental to one's spiritual life. It is a natural function. But in asking myself the question, "What is keeping me from communing with Jesus in prayer?" and the greater question, "What do I prefer to God?" during this time of Lent, I have found that sleep has become the biggest enemy to my spiritual life.

I love sleeping. I usually fall asleep on the couch after dinner, take naps on the weekend, and go to bed early and wake up late, sometimes logging ten or more hours a night. I am a glutton for sleep.

Don't be fooled; Satan uses whatever devices he can to keep us from prayer, to keep us lukewarm and apathetic towards our Creator, to keep us from having a loving relationship with Jesus. If it is something as innocent as sleep, so be it.

Now I am not talking about keeping all night vigils like St. Anthony, or anything so extreme. In my case, it is simply getting up an hour early to pray. We are fortunate enough to have a chapel of perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament close by, and as a Lenten commitment to deepening my relationship with Jesus, I have been trying to spend an hour in Adoration before work, at least a few days a week. It is such a nice thought.

But when it comes time to get up at 6:30am to make it happen, it astounds me how resistant my flesh is to the prospect. In the same way I used to struggle with sexual temptation when I was younger, I am literally wrestling with my lazy flesh to get up and go pray.

Because I am half asleep, my will is weakened, and my natural inclination is to lie back down when the alarm goes off. And I have done so on many occasions during the past month. Rather than face discomfort and simply get up when the alarm goes off, ripping the flesh out by the root in one fell swoop, I give Mrs. Sandman permission to perform a strip-tease, tantalizing me with "10 more minutes" or "just rest your eyes for a minute" and "God will understand." 6:30 becomes 6:45, 6:45 becomes 7:15, and before I know it, I've lost my window of opportunity to be with Jesus for the morning. It seemed so innocent. But really, I let my guard down spiritually, and played right into the Devil's hand.

This battle with the flesh is not about sleep, or sex, or food, or this or that particular thing. It is, more generally, about comfort. Jonathan Robinson, in Spiritual Combat Revisited, puts it well:

"The analogy with physical training for a game is still an apt one. If we never exercise, our muscles go slack, our heart goes fatty, our breathing becomes erratic, and our reactions slow down.The desire of physical comfort leads us to underestimate the exercise that is really needed to play the particular game we want to play. The desire for comfort is the great obstacle to physical well-being, and the desire for comfort is one of the most dangerous enemies of spiritual health."

Sleeping in an hour may not seem like a big deal on the surface. But if it keeps me from spending time with God in prayer, then it actually becomes, spiritually, a very big deal. Lent is the perfect time to train spiritually, to work on what keeps us from being in right relationship with God. Jesus made deliberate time to get away and pray, even though he was communing with the Father 24/7. In our busy lives it can be difficult to find time to get away. But we will find a way to make time for what we love. We always do. The question is, what do you love?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Adrift

When I was on retreat at Suan Mokkh, Tan Medhi, one of the monks, pointed out in the tapestry of Dependent Origination a picture of a man and woman in a boat, representing the mind and the body afloat in the sea of samsara. Tan Medhi noted, "they are like man and woman, husband and wife, yes? Must work together. Sea is...very very hard. If no...crash! You know this one?"

The image of man and woman, husband and wife, together in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean trying to get to shore, has stuck with me over the years. Marriage, it seems to me, is less about happiness and more about survival. That is not to say I am not happy with my wife (I am), but only that happiness is not the end goal or purpose of our marriage. It is a pleasant byproduct.

People in every culture throughout history have 'teamed up' in order to better weather the storms of life. For God said, "it is not good for man to be alone." I think it is such a great description in Genesis 2:24, where it is written, "A man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife." The word itself denotes that spirit of urgent survival...you cling to a life preserver when you are at risk of drowning if you didn't have it.

When two people are in a lifeboat together, they need to learn to work together--whether they love each other or hate each other, whether they disagree about this or that, whether they are happy together or not--to get to shore. Yes, sitting in a lifeboat with someone for ten, twenty, fifty years may get boring, you're going to run out of stuff to say to each other, the flame of love may die down to a flicker. But what are you going to do...jump out of the boat and into the ocean and swim to shore because you can't stand the person anymore? That seems crazy...but people do it all the time.

I find myself clinging to my wife not out of any neediness or panic, but because I love her and want to be with her; I want to rely on her and for her to rely on me. But even if I didn't, I would still cling to her because, let's face it, life is hard. To go it alone is even harder.

Don't be fooled...marriage--and staying married--is much more pragmatic than we might think.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Give Me a Word

From 2005 to 2009, I had a spiritual adviser by the name of Fr. Vince, a priest at St. Joe's University. I would typically see him once a month for an hour or so, at which time we would talk about my spiritual life (or more specifically, my struggles to lead a spiritual life). Prior to this, I relied on a Trappist monk by the name of Fr. James Orthmann for guidance and discernment in spiritual matters (and during my monastic discernment), mostly through handwritten letters, though I would visit him at the Abbey once or twice during our acquaintanceship where he served as Vocation Director for Holy Cross in Berryville, VA. It sounds kind of hokey, such meetings, but having a "spiritual father" has always been important to me.

Spiritual seekers in the early centuries of the church sought out fathers and mothers in the desert. They would often travel for days through harsh terrain to find such a wise man or woman, and when they found them, would usually beg for a crumb of spiritual wisdom. "Abba, give me a word," they would say.

In the Christian tradition, we believe the Word saves, that God comes to us through the words of scripture, and Jesus is often referred to as the Divine Logos, or Divine Word. For the early Christian seekers, a word (or a few words) from a spiritual elder used in the quest for salvation was life-giving. Oral tradition was invaluable as a "pedagogy of spiritual direction" (as Douglas Burton-Christie relates it in his book, The Word in the Desert), as was the lineage of the elder, that is, where (or, more specifically, who) the elder received his "word" from.

My friend Tim and I were talking on the phone the other night, and we were both lamenting the fact that at the time, we are both "teacher-less." We have no one to confide in, really, and no one to guide us spiritually. I feel like an athlete without a trainer...flabby, and directionless. We are spiritual orphans.

But I am wary of anyone who posits themselves as a teacher seeking disciples. I often think the best, most authentic teachers are the ones reluctant to enter into such a relationship, and who certainly do not seek out the opportunity to be a teacher. There are many false prophets today, and the importance of avoiding them can not be overstated. A good teacher is hard to find.

It can also be tempting to find someone who simply reinforces our own erroneous beliefs about ourselves, rather than someone who challenges us to work out our salvation in a way we might find unattractive. If I go to someone seeking a word, and he says, "Pray," and I don't want to pray or am seeking something other than prayer, like someone to baby me or to help rationalize my sinful behavior, I can be assured that the problem is with me, and not the speaker of the word.

Trying to find a teacher is like trying to find a good car mechanic. You want someone you trust, because what they work on is valuable to you. You rely on word of mouth, because you trust people you know. You seek someone in particular out because you hear they are honest and fair, and do good work and are competent. You want to know yourself, first-hand, because you are trusting them with your car.

Who, then, can I trust with my soul?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

So I Was Afraid...

When I read the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30, I know which of the three servants I am; I am the one who buries his talent out of fear.

This is the servant that the master calls wicked, lazy, and worthless. Pretty harsh language. But what did the servant really do wrong? In the parallel Parable of the Minas in Luke 19:11-27, the king explicitly charges his servants to "put his money to work."

But in Matthew's account, the master simply "entrusts" his property to them. He may expect that they return it to him with interest, but he doesn't verbalize this. So the "lazy" servant puts the one talent he has been entrusted with in a safe place; he buries it. Seems like a perfectly natural, responsible thing to do.

If my father entrusted me with $100,000 in this economic climate, I honestly would probably put it in an ING account at (a pitiful) 1% interest, rather than investing it in the stock market. I would be afraid to lose it, to come back with less than I started with. I imagine he would be more pissed if I lost money.

But with the Master, that is not the case. He doesn't respond to the two that gained a 100% return, "You fools! Why would you gamble with my money? What if you lost what I had entrusted you with?" No. Instead he praises them for their ballsy wager and entrusts them with even more.

There is one defining difference between the one servant and the other two, though: the servant entrusted with one talent acted out of fear. "Master," he says, "I knew that you are a hard man...so I was afraid, and hid your talent in the ground."

The words "Be not afraid" appear some 366 times in the bible. Despite this admonition, I still live in fear. I'm afraid of driving in the snow. I'm afraid of parking garages. I'm afraid of screwing up at work. I'm afraid of becoming a widower. I'm fearful of all kinds of shit. I feel like lately I am basically living most of my life in fear, with an aversion to risk, and little trust in God's providence. The older I get, the safer I want to be.

How did I get this way? Does God see this, and as a result, entrusts me with less? I feel like God asks a lot of us, and I'm not giving him a return on his investment in me. I feel like I should be working in a soup kitchen (for lack of anything more creative) or something, volunteering my time at the very least, but my laziness and my unpredictable hours at work prevent me from committing. What am I being charged with? How is God asking me to "put myself out there?" How am I building up the Kingdom on earth?

I can't shake this feeling that I am just not doing what God wants me to be doing, either because I don't know what that is, or because I'm afraid to risk anything for the sake of the Gospel. God spews the lukewarm from his mouth, and I am about as lukewarm as they come right now.

Lord, send your Holy Spirit. Set me on fire.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Silly Virgins

I was reading Matthew 25:1-13 (the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins) this morning and couldn't help thinking about retirement, again:

"Then the Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins, who took their lamps, and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. Those who were foolish, when they took their lamps, took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. Now while the bridegroom delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, "Behold! The bridegroom is coming! Come out to meet him!" Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, "Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out." But the wise answered, saying, "What if there isn't enough for us and you? You go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves." While they went away to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins also came, saying, "Lord, Lord, open to us." But he answered, "Most certainly I tell you, I don't know you." Watch therefore, for you don't know the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming."


Now I know this parable is more eschatological than financial, but I can't help drawing similarities between the virgins and our economic climate here in the States.

For example, a recent survey released by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 54 percent of American workers have saved less than $25,000 for retirement, with half of those people saying they had less than $1,000 saved for retirement. Yet, nearly a third of those who say they have virtually nothing set aside say they are “very” or “somewhat” confident that they will have enough money for a comfortable retirement.

I'm sure the foolish virgins thought they had enough oil. But the fact of the matter is, they didn't. That was the reality of the situation. I'm sure they were thinking in the back of their minds, 'those other virgins will hook us up if we run out,' or 'we'll be fine.' They weren't thinking about the future. The most shocking thing to me, though, is that the wise virgins weren't exactly charitable with their extra oil. They claimed there wasn't enough for the both of them--in the face of dire need, they didn't give.

Now, anything can happen. The wise virgins could have tripped on the way and spilled all their oil reserves. The would still be wise, but also unlucky--the door would have shut on both sets of virgins. Same thing with people's finances. Some people encounter illness, natural disaster, bad stocks, unexpected unemployment, what have you, and lose it all. They may have been saving all their lives and have nothing to show for it through no fault of their own. These people aren't foolish, just unlucky. I'm not talking about these people.

Also, if you're a life-long minimum wage worker, chances are you're not going to be banking six figures for the future. You're barely making ends meet as it is. There are rare exceptions (Oseola McCarty, the Missisissippi washer-woman who donated the $150,000 she had saved washing dirty underpants for 60+ years to the University of Southern Mississippi). But I'm not really talking about these people either.

I'm talking about the truly foolish, the grasshoppers of the world (as in, Aesop's Ant and the Grasshopper) who don't plan for the future but are only concerned about today. The ones who cash out their 401k to buy a boat, wanted a huge house they couldn't afford long-term, or whatever.

Now, the wise virgins brought some extra oil, but its not like they brought barrels full of it. They probably brought enough that they could carry. What if the bridegroom took even longer than both groups anticipated and even their extra oil ran out? Would they be foolish too? Or, again, just unlucky? Retirement is kind of similar...you don't know how long you are going to live, so you do your best to balance your present-day needs with your anticipated future needs.

I really don't know where I'm going with all this, and don't want to come across as self-righteous. But if people are going to continue to not save adequately for their future in this country, there's going to be a lot of need in the days to come--a financial famine, so to speak. I think we're all going to feel the consequences of this lack of planning, some more than others. And those who have been diligent and financially wise are going to be faced with a choice--do you give (assuming people ask for help, that is), or do you let the grasshoppers be shut out? Does that make you an uncharitable person, or, like the virgins, simply holding people responsible for their actions, ie, their lack of planning?

As always, I don't know the answer, just asking the questions...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How Much Is Enough?

[The man said,] ‘This is what I will do. I will pull down my barns, and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. I will tell my soul, "Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years. Take your ease, eat, drink, be merry."‘ "But God said to him, ‘You foolish one, tonight your soul is required of you. The things which you have prepared—whose will they be?’ Lk 12:18-20

I have to admit this parable is disconcerting. Isn't the man's attitude the very attitude we are encouraged to have with regards to retirement in the 21st century? We are told that the wise person plans for retirement by deferring immediate gratification and investing (instead of spending) in order to store up wealth for himself in his "golden years." He 'earns' his retirement and is entitled to enjoy it. As far as the 'whose will they be?' part in the parable, the answer seems obvious: what the man has earned in his lifetime will go to his children as their inheritance.

My dad was smart with his money. He planned early, saved all his life, was frugal, made good investments, stayed at the same job (he was a teacher) for thirty years (maxing out the pay grade and securing a good pension) and retired when he was in his early fifties. He made sacrifices and is now enjoying the payoff and making sure my brothers and I have an inheritance. But is he a fool in God's eyes? Will he lose his soul at the expense of his wealth? I pray not; only God knows.

In grad school I tried to give a presentation on "A Theology of Wealth." I think I was trying to prove that it was a sin to have more than you need. But that is so hard to quantify. Do we really 'need' a house? A car? Shoes? There's no line to draw, and its all subjective. In short, I couldn't answer the question I posed in the presentation, mainly: How Much is Too Much?

I have a dollar. I can give this dollar to the poor or put it in my retirement account. The first option makes me generous; the second option makes me fiscally responsible. Is there a way to be both? The answer my wife and I have come up with is a compromise: tithing.

We give 10% of our net earnings to the poor (5%) and to the church (5%). That's it. No more, no less. If someone comes up to me asking for money on the street and I give them $20, that is simply $20 that is coming out of the 'tithing pot.' The tithing pot is a piece of paper I keep on the fridge totaling up the 10% of our earnings each week. I add, subtract, cross out. It looks like a mess, but it keeps us accountable.

Some days I am tempted to 'adjust' our tithe--maybe take it down a notch or so to 7%, or 5%. I don't think this is necessarily wrong, and we may in fact have to adjust in the future. But again, there you have that difficult business of trying to draw a line in the sand. I could say to my wife, 'We need to put more money away for retirement.' And it seems, these days, that that is a perfectly reasonable and responsible suggestion. But it takes money away from people who might need it more desperately than we do.

I think, in the end, God is more concerned about the state of our souls rather than the state of our finances. Our finances are something we worry about, and in this economic climate, it seems rightfully so that we would worry (then again, Jesus tells us not to worry about those things. Hm...) I think the important thing is to have a generous spirit that is concerned with the welfare of others, not just ourselves.

But in the end, we have to watch out for ourselves and our family too. My dad was good about taking care of the family, but he never really taught us much about giving to others. The way he figured, he paid his taxes, and that went to federally-funded programs that help the poor. I also got the picture from him that poor people were poor through their own fault, not being smart, making bad choices, etc., and that giving to them was like throwing money into a black hole, and that they got enough benefits from the government anyway.

But I want to teach my children to be generous (as well as fiscally responsible). I think God wants us to share what we have with those in need, as best we can. The more we do this, the more I think it becomes natural to give, and this affects our spiritual disposition. Tithing has been our way of striking this compromise between our own welfare and the welfare of others in need. And so far it seems to be working.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Caught on Tape

A few months ago I received a letter in the mail from the City of Wilmington. When I opened it up, there was a picture of a car with my license plate going through a red light and a fine for $110.

My first reaction was, "I didn't do it." I thought this even as I looked at the picture of my car and the red light above it. It seemed so unfair, so legalistic. I don't run red lights...at least not deliberately. I do run yellows from time to time, though. If they turn red as I'm going under them, I figure, I'm still in the clear. I was innocent, even though the evidence said otherwise.

How do you contest something when you are "caught on tape?" What am I going to say? "It wasn't me." It was. " The light wasn't red." It was. I had committed an infraction, and now I was going to have to pay. I was pissed. I had no excuse.

This whole scenario got me thinking about my moral life, and how easy it is in our culture to rationalize our sin. How many yellow lights have I skirted through? Yellow lights are meant to be a warning; there's got to be a reason the traffic signals don't go straight from green to red. If you're smart, you slow down to a stop before the light turns red. If you're ballsy, you take your chances. Most of the time, nobody notices. Every now and then you get nailed.

Sometimes you're even at those intersections where there is nobody around for miles and you're just sitting at a red light and you're like "why can't I just go?" You are obeying the law, but there are no other cars around to be in danger of hitting. You can rationalize the law, saying that since there's no one around, that red light is not for you. The law suddenly seems stupid. You go through. If there's a camera, it will take your picture, and you will get a fine and have to pay. If there's no camera, then no harm no foul, right?

Maybe yellow lights are like occasions of sin, and red lights are like the real deal, the sin itself. You can run a yellow and be ok, but its better to stop, just to be on the safe side. The law is there to protect citizens, you and me both, from people who might run red lights and put themselves and other people in danger. I want everyone to obey the rules of the road, for my own protection as well as everybody else's.

But we're not playing by God's rules in today's society. Everybody is deciding when to stop and when to go on their own terms and as a result souls are perishing and nothing feels safe and I'm afraid to drive on this proverbial road. Society is descending into morally relativistic chaos because nobody thinks God is watching. But he is.

In the eyes of God everything we do is on tape; there is nothing that escapes God's notice, even when we think otherwise. Running a red light may seem like an innocent enough thing. But what if you do it and you hit another car and kill the people inside? Are you going to say you're not to blame?

When I die, God is going to roll the tape of all the dirty stuff I've done, and all the good I haven't done, and its going to be a Shame Fest, and all the saints will be watching and wailing for me and my fate and it will be 10,000 times worse than running any red light and there won't be any amount of money in the world that I can pay God back for it all. To say, "I didn't do it," would only add insult to injury. Because I've done it all, and its all on tape.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Watch!

I'll admit something: I like to pray lying down. I find I'm able to relax and not be so distracted by my aching back or knees, and I enjoy it because I'm comfortable. In short, it feels less like work, and I'm not watching the clock for when time is up. I'm just enjoying the quiet time with God.

Sometimes I fall asleep. Actually a lot of the time. Is this a bad thing? Some people would say it is fine, I'm sure, "it's enough that you're praying." But people more serious about prayer I think would say it's a sign of laziness, the lying down. What if I lie down and don't fall asleep, though? Isn't the falling asleep the danger?

I like to think of a child laying at the feet of his father who is ignorant of the "proper" posture. I used to lie down on the bench in the Adoration chapel at St. Mary of the Assumption in Manayunk, and one time I got in trouble for doing it. Not trouble, really, but the overseer of the chapel thought I was a vagrant or something that was just napping. I know it must have looked odd, or disrespectful, but I didn't care. I was alone in the chapel, and laying before my Lord like a child.

Is there a right way to pray? Most people would say that conversing with God or being still in His presence is the important thing, and it doesn't matter what posture you assume. But I'm not so sure. I think my desire to lie down in prayer comes in large part from not wanting prayer to be work, of wanting to be comfortable, and perhaps from laziness. Perhaps the position is more associated with sleep, then being alert, like Jesus says in Mark 13: "If he comes, do not let him find you sleeping." Then again, I would rather lie down for 15 minutes of prayer than not pray at all, if it came to that.

What do you think, readers? Am I just a lazy bum looking for an excuse to rest, or does praying lying down have any value at all? How do you pray?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Under the Influence

I often wonder why I became a Catholic-Christian. Sometimes I am stumped for an answer, or find it hard to articulate just what it was that drove me knocking at the Church's door. No doubt there were influences along the way. Here's the story of two particular friends who complementarily influenced my decision to become a Christian and, ultimately, join the Catholic Church.

Andy was my best friend growing up. He attended the local Presbyterian church in Doylestown. He never preached Jesus to me or anything, but I always knew he was active in his church's youth group. Andy had his church friends and his secular friends, and they didn't mix too much, though we did occasionally get together to play football at Fonthill. They were all pretty cool, I guess, though were that kind of "Christian cool," like, going to Christian concerts and mission trips and not smoking or drinking but playing sports and acting like regular people otherwise. They were ok to hang out with I guess, but in all honesty I felt more comfortable with our non-church friends. But they all had values, for sure.

Andy was a kind of model of what was good for me. We got into all kinds of trouble (we once drive-by paintballed the school and got chased by the janitor in her truck, had drag races, stole intertubes and built a raft and sailed down the delaware, etc.), but he was always reaching out to people who weren't popular, and going against the grain when it came to peer pressure. He didn't talk much about Jesus, but I sensed he was trying to live a good life, but not in a generic be-a-good-person kind of way, but modeling after someone's life in particular. He was following a different kind of way, as if there was an afterlife we were preparing for, as if what we were doing in this life counted for something. He was always accepting and forgiving, and even when I shafted him or treated him bad, he never held it against me. I was curious about his faith, I guess, but the youth-group thing kind of turned me off--I knew Andy thought it was cool but I didn't--and if that's what being a Christian was, I didn't want any part of it.

I had another friend, Brian, who I ran cross country and track with. He went to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, the local Catholic grade school, til 8th grade, I think, then went to Lenape and West. He had a lot of brothers and sisters who were older than him, and his parents were pretty old. He also had a pool, and lived across the street from Andy.

Brian was a junior when I was a senior, and I convinced him to spend the summer after my graduation hiking the Appalachian Trail with me. It was a great adventure. I don't ever remember Brian sharing anything religious or Christian with me, though I knew he was Catholic. I didn't know what a Catholic was then, really, only that it seemed to be like this exclusive club. It was made up of Christians who maybe didn't care much about Jesus or being good or anything like that, but could always fall back on their special status with their membership card or whatever. I once badmouthed the local Catholic church while I was in the car with my dad ('Everyone goes there,' I said with disdain) and he harshly reprimanded me for my lack of reverence. I didn't know what it was about Catholics, but I didn't like them because I was secretly jealous of not being in their club.

Brian's mother was a pious woman. She had pictures of the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart and Jesus and Mary all over the walls, the St. Christopher sticker in the car, the crucifixes over the beds, the rosaries, all of it. I couldn't tell, but it seemed like she was really into the Catholic Club thing, like it was a nationality or something. I was secretly fascinated, and would ask her about the Catholic stuff, and she delightfully indulged me. I wanted to be part of the club, and she knew it.

Andy gave me the general model for living and believing in what was Good. Brian (and his mom, moreso) gave me the specific (intellectual and theological) backbone for putting my general faith in a specific context, and, subsequently, in a particular community of believers. I think both are important.

We don't live in a vacuum. Everyone comes to faith through the influence of someone or something in their lives that affects their experience; faith comes alive through experience. Experience isn't everything, but I do think it's important. I have been influenced by others and, hopefully, I have influenced others as well to come to have a personal relationship with Jesus. I have learned from Andy that living by example can have powerful effects, and from Brian's mom that those pious devotions can sometimes spark enough curiosity in someone as to incite belief.

Never underestimate your influence.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Living Beyond Our Means

I think drug addiction is a scourge of humanity. I'm starting to think the same about credit.

Think about how lenders were pushing easy credit before the sub-prime mortgage crisis the way a drug dealer peddles addictive drugs--looking for easy targets, vulnerable people, wanting to make money and not caring how it wrecks a persons life. Credit card companies targeting college students (who have little to no source of income).

Our materialistic culture, where wants have become needs, is the perfect petrie dish for this virus to grow. Make people feel entitled and you can get them to buy all sorts of things they can't afford.

I use a credit card. I love being able to pay for things with it because it is super convenient. But I pay it off each month; never had a balance, hopefully I never will. If I can't afford something, I don't buy it. I like to consider myself responsible. But what about those people who aren't responsible or financially educated, who spend more than they make on a consistent basis, or buy houses they can't afford, and find themselves in major debt or foreclosure, or even find themselves addicted to credit cards?

It's been bothering me because it affects society as a whole, for the worse, and I feel powerless to do anything about it except lead by example. I feel bad for the guy who has been faithfully paying his mortgage and is surrounded by foreclosed houses, driving down the value of his house. That could easily be us. I find myself judging, and angry. We all have to live with the fallout.

Everyone knows the story of the ant and the grasshopper. The ant was responsible, working all summer to save food for the winter while the grasshopper didn't. Winter came and the grasshopper comes asking for help because he has nothing saved. The grasshopper is suddenly poor, but it's his own fault. What is the Christian response? Do we let the grasshopper lie in the bed that he has made, forcing him to be accountable for his actions, or help him out of a sense of Christian charity to 'the poor', turning a blind eye to what got him in this mess in the first place?

I don't know the answer. I have been wrestling with it since this whole financial crisis began. I feel for the poor, those who have lost their house, etc., but I want people to be held responsible for their bad choices, and their spending rather than saving, as well. I can't do all this without judging, either, which makes things worse (Granted, not all poverty is related to bad choices. Misfortune, disability, losing a job, etc all contribute to sudden poverty). But do you just turn a blind eye to it? Aren't we forced to judge to make prudent decisions?

In the 20's, during the Great Depression, people didn't have the same kind of access to credit that we have today. That means that if you didn't have the money to buy something (and a lot of people didn't), you didn't buy it. You suffered because of it. You learned how to stretch your money because you had to. As the saying went, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." How often do we do that today?

I know this sounds preachy, or superior or whatever, but I don't know how to make it sound otherwise. I'm pissed with the state of our economy, and how it got this way in the first place, and I'm looking to blame. It has me feeling sour...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cure for Pain

Medical marijuana proponents tout the drug for its ability to treat pain; getting high just happens to be a nice by-product. But what if you could treat pain with a cannabinoid without the accompanying mind-altering high?

Now you can! Sativex, a cannabis-based nasal spray developed by GW Pharmaceuticals, has been proven to be effective at managing pain for people suffering from MS and cancer treatment without the accompanying marijuana high. It has been approved for use in the U.K. and Canada.

Isn't effective cannabis-based pain managment at the heart of the legalization fight? Not really. Pain managment is the front--getting high is what people really want. Take that away and it is like sex without orgasm: functional, but not much fun.

The development of Sativex is not good news for pot-smokers seeking refuge for their "chronic pain" under the umbrella of medical marijuana. According to a recent article in TIME, "The moment Sativex goes on the market, the need for medical dispensaries, caregivers and growers--and all the confusions and prevarications that attend them--disappears."

I visited a medicinal marijuana dispensary in Oakland once with a friend who was a cop. It was kind of a joke. According to my friend, there is a "doctor" upstairs who you pay $100 or something and he writes you a prescription. It could be for anything, but "chronic pain" or "depression" is kind-of the catch all. Then you go downstairs and get your "medicine." Then you go home, take out your bong, and treat your pain.

Personally, I think the medical arguments for legalizing marijuana are weak. I agree with Christian Thurstone, a psychiatrist in Denver, who said in the aforementioned TIME article, "If we want to legalize marijuana, then let's legalize marijuana and call it a day. Let's not sneak it in the back door, dragging the medical system into it."

Marijuana can be used to treat pain, but so can meditation. Meditation requires effort...smoking a joint is, well, relatively easy. Meditation is good for mental clarity; marijuana, not so much so (any good Buddhist will tell you that). Is it any wonder why most people will jump on the bandwagon towards the path of least resistence?

Most of us don't want to make friends with our pain, whether it is physical, emotional, or psychological. It is seen as something "bad," having little or no value, something to get rid of as fast as possible, whether than involves popping a pill or smoking a bowl. I think Jesus taught us to see pain, suffering, and discomfort as something different, something to be embraced rather than run from. Teachers come in the subtlest of guises; perhaps pain has something to teach us after all.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Fair's Fair

I was listening to a podcast by Andy Stanley about the fairness of Christianity. He contended that Christianity is not based on fairness, but truth. It does not seem fair that one sin would make us a sinner, but that is indeed the case. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, we inherited their punishment, and all became sinners in need of grace; the issue of fairness went out the window. We are all sinners, because not one person can say they have not sinned; one sin makes a sinner. And because of God's justice, sin has to be accounted for.

Yesterday I got an application for life insurance from AAA. One of the questions was have you used nicotine in the last twelve months. It seemed unfair, and totally legalistic. Have just one cigarette in a year's time and you're paying more than twice the normal rate. Does one cigarette a year make one a smoker? I personally don't think so. At the same time, there's no gray area: if you've smoked once, you're a smoker, as far as AAA is concerned. Doesn't seem fair. In any case, I made a resolve not to smoke at all for the next year, so that, if anything, I can answer the question of nicotine use honestly and receive a lower rate.

I can resolve to not smoke and follow through on that and free myself from the higher rates for life insurance, but the same cannot be said about my sin. I cannot free myself from damnation by resolving never to sin again, because it would never work. No matter how hard I try to get myself into the 'no sin' category, I would fall short, guaranteed.

I don't believe that one cigarette a year makes one a bonafide smoker; but the least sin, no matter how small, makes us fall short of the perfection that God demands, and as such, makes us unworthy of heaven. Christ bore the punishment for our sins. The way to salvation is through faith in him, through the faith that trusts that God accepted Christ's perfect sacrifice for us as sufficient to merit heaven. Doesn't seem very fair to me that Christ should have to die. But then again, just because it's not fair doesn't mean its not true.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Medjugorje

A couple years ago I met a girl who had a life-changing experience at Medjugorje. I thought about it a lot after that, and even felt that the Blessed Mother was calling me there to experience her presence and witness her miracles, including the miracle of the spinning sun. I didn't know much about Medjugorje, or even what country it was in, but I knew that at some point in my life, I should get there, that something--I don't know what--was waiting for me there.

I haven't been to Medjugorje yet; I keep putting it off. I have a skeptic's heart, a regular Doubting Thomas. But I desire a deeper relationship with the Mother of God, because she is looking out for us as any mother would. She is warning us of the impending judgment that is coming, the "chastisement for the sins of the world." I haven't been touched yet; I feel unprepared for what lies ahead. Though I did see the sun in the sky yesterday and it looked...very strange. It reminded me of Medjugorje.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Sincere Heart

My wife is helping to lead a women's retreat this weekend, and she is stressing out about her talk: "Loving God with a Sincere Heart." As soon as I got home from my college fair, she confronted me: "Help!" she said, "I don't know what to write!" It got me thinking about what a sincere heart really is, and who possesses it.

My models for sincerity are David (in the Old Testament) and Peter (in the New Testament). I don't know why, but I always equate the two together, like Peter is the New David in some way. David danced in a loin cloth before the Lord, he didn't care what people thought. He ate the showbread because he was hungry. He sinned boldly, but was quick to see his own fault, and humble enough to admit it. And he loved the Lord madly. Psalm 51, which was written after Nathan the prophet confronts David after his affair with Bathsheba, says of the Lord, "you insist on sincerity of heart."

Peter was brazen, but only because he loved the Lord with everything he had. When Peter said, "though all may fall away, I will not fall away," he was being sincere. But he was wrong, too! He did fall away, but his sincerity displayed itself in the tears of shame he wept after realizing he had denied Jesus, and was being shown what he was at that time: a hypocrite, a liar, a bad friend.

But was this all Peter was? Does his denying Christ reduce him to just that--a denier? Jesus did not reduce Peter to what he was at that moment; rather, he saw him in his entirety. Part of sincerity is not pretending to be anything other than what you are--a sinner--while at the same time not reducing yourself to that identity. It is having "eyes to see."

In chapter 18 of the book of John, Peter is denying Christ three times. By chapter 21, Jesus is asking Peter, "do you love me?" and Peter has the audacity to proclaim three times, "Lord, you know that I do." Is he being sincere? I believe he is. So moral failing and sincerity must have something to do with one another. Someone could say, "he is not sincere because what he says (I love you) does not match up with his actions (I don't know you). Peter does not get "stuck" on his imperfection, but boldly proclaims his love for Christ in spite of it.

Sincerity (like repentance) comes from the heart...not the mind. The heart is not perfect, but it can be, I believe, perfectly sincere. And a sincere heart does not pay heed to those who stand in judgment of it, dredging up the sins of the past and wagging them in front of it, because it knows that only God can judge the heart, for "man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7).

Saturday, October 2, 2010

What Might Happen

We took my sister-in-law's kids to the park today, they were riding bikes and running around, being kids. And this side of me came out...what was it? Control freak! "Jackson, don't go too far! Bella, come back here!" They weren't out of control, but I was not in control. I didn't want them out of my sight. I was afraid something might happen to them.

I would like to stop worrying about "what might happen." It is keeping me from "living in the present," as the saying goes. I don't want to be one of those parents that doesn't let their kids play for fear of something that might happen. Control seems to be the opposite of play.

What if I did let one of the kids out of my sight? It's hard to say. Something could happen, something might not. It's a fine balance, this being responsible. I haven't quite figured it out yet.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Trust me.

I started a new job recently. It seems to be going well, a bit dizzying with all the meetings, appointments, and orientations I have to attend. Long hours, lots of travel, and a packed schedule. It is taking some getting used to (esp. having to wear a tie every day), but I think it will be good. The university is putting a good deal of stock in me, trusting that the person I portrayed in my interview is who I am delivering to them. They have given me business cards, a name plate for my desk, a sizable office with a window, an email address, a salary, a territory, assignments, expectations, etc. If I were to quit suddenly and unexpectedly, I would in many ways be screwing them. Betraying their trust to deliver on what I promised.

My wife has also put a lot of stock in me, trusting me with her heart and her very life, not to mention the joint checking account and legal prescriptions. All this responsibility all of a sudden! It is a little unnerving for someone who has generally shied away from it most of his life. I generally want the good without the bad, the office without the responsibility. But I don't think it works this way.

In all honesty, Deb and I haven't gone through any major struggles yet in our marriage; I'm sure our trials are still to come. But I have a friend who is going through his first major trial with his wife and it has gotten me thinking about this issue of trust and betrayal, how fragile trust is, how great a responsibility it is, and how great the need for forgiveness in a marriage.

We are not perfect people, especially us men. I can't imagine going through the course of my marriage and not making any mistakes. There has to be forgiveness for a marriage to work. This doesn't make it any easier to restore a trust that has been betrayed. As much as I trust Deb to be there for me, I trust her to forgive me even more. I know that if I eff up, I won't be fired. There are no 3-strike rules in our marriage.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

We've got to go someplace, find something...

I'm reading You Shall Know Our Velocity! by Dave Eggers, the first book I have read since graduate school, I think. It is a work of fiction about two 27 year old guys on a maniacal mission to give away $32,000 around the world in a week for some reason unbeknownst to the reader. It makes me tired, Eggers creatively manic prose. I yawn; I am manic no more. I read the energy with detachment as the boys bop and jump from one continent to another working out their ghosts.

I threw out a pair of pants yesterday because I had worn them out and didn't need them anymore. I rolled them up and folded them into the trashcan. I had been waiting for a while to finish them out. I bought three new sweaters, merino wool sweaters to replace my wool sweater ridden with moth holes (also retired into the trashcan), good for wearing outside and keeping warm in the rain and packing into rucksacks. But I have hung up my rucksack.

Do we outgrow adventure? Tell me.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Assumption of Historical Existence

The genealogy of Jesus Christ as recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke have as their goal the proof of a claim, that is, that Jesus of Nazareth is the historically anticipated Messiah. Because they are addressing two distinct audiences, the methods they employ differ. While Matthew relies on a lineage which shows Jesus’ connection to the throne of David, Luke uses such historical means to arrive at an ahistorical point of origin.

However, the question remains: in a postmodern age, can we trust sources which claim to be able to tell us where we came from, and who came before us? Can the same historically-based methodology used by the writers of Matthew and Luke to prove historical existence be applied in a paradigmatic sphere of postmodern skepticism?

To illustrate this difficulty with the certainty of historical existence, I propose to contrast the historical accounts of the genealogy of Jesus of Nazareth in Matthew and Luke with a modern day genealogy. To do this I consider my own family origins, but more specifically, the ontological character of my grandfather (my father’s father), who died before I was born. Such an investigation might even be inspired by those who lay claims to great lineages, including one man in Great Britain who claims to have traced his ancestry all the way back to the first parents! While such a genealogy may in fact be verified and affirmed by historical evidence as being possible, the inability to verify the authenticity of such historical accounts makes ontological certitude subject to skepticism; the longer the lineage, the higher the susceptibility to the problem of regress. This individual was most likely not as concerned with securing absolute ontological certitude in his proposition of being a blood relative of Adam and Eve as he was with simply tracing the historical family “lines” back to their source. And so the metaphysical question from the aforementioned scenario remains: How do I prove that my grandfather, who died before I was born, maintained a historical existence on earth between the years 1920-1971?

To begin, we could say that logical inference might support the claim based on genealogy:

I (N) am born from my mother (M) and my father (F).

Then:

My father (F) was born from my grandmother (F^m) and my grandfather (F^f).

Represented schematically, it might look like this (similar to a truncated family tree):

N
/ \
M F
/ \ / \
M^m M^f F^m F^f

Thus, there is a direct lineage between myself and my grandfather. This relationship is bound both historically and genetically.

There also exists an antithesis, which may be stated as follows:

If F^f did not exist in historical past
Then:
I would not exist at present.
Therefore:
Because I exist
Then:
F^f existed.

While this overly-simplified Cartesian method of deductive reasoning appears to “prove” the historical existence of a family member, how would one approach the problem of proving the existence of an un-related historical figure such as, for instance, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? In such a scenario it becomes clear that the presuppositions of existence rest on an empiricism that is not immediately identifiable by sense-experience. Consider the proposition:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. existed.

Because there is not a direct lineage from myself to Dr. King, I am unable to appeal to direct experiential logic to verify this proposition; this is something that must take place a posteriori, since it expresses an empirical fact which is unable to be known by reason alone. But I have adequate resources to give clues as to his existence, such as television recordings of his speeches, copies of letters written by him, and possibly access to second or first-hand accounts from people who knew him personally or who had a relative who did. While all these historical “artifacts” give clues into the existence of this man the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and virtually every United States citizen would affirm his existence as a leading civil rights activist and historical figure, there is no way in which I can empirically “prove” his existence without, as Thomas said, “putting my finger in his side.”

Although a complete epistemological investigation into the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth is beyond the scope of this paper, a general theory of knowledge is necessary. I have used Descartes’ rational-foundationalist approach to illustrate how one could “prove” the existence of a historical ancestor using the coupling of genealogical history and the Cartesian “I” as the foundational starting point for such an investigation. This method corresponds with Matthew’s genealogical account of the ancestral lineage of Jesus to Abraham, sans the Cartesian epistemological component. It relies on third-person accounts and historical evidence to support the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth really is the Christ, the rightful heir to the throne of David and the fulfillment of the messianic promise.

In Matthew’s account, such a proposition can be inferred logically by historical evidence; the same can be said of Luke’s. However, because Luke’s account seeks to prove Jesus’ divine, rather than historical, lineage, he extends his genealogy all the way to the first man, Adam, “son of God.” The question one must ask, then, is itself foundational: was Adam a real person?

[from the paper The Assumption of Historical Existence: Kierkegaard and Newman on Faith and the Traditio non Scripta. by Rob Marco. All rights reserved.]


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Journals of Yore, Pt. II

Last scrap of journal I could find for this Kerouacian trip out west with Misha...

Sun. 1/7/01

i try to get misha to go to mass with me. 'i don't have any nice clothes' he says. 'you don't need nice clothes to go to mass' i say. 'well, i'm agnostic anyway...' i stare uncomfortably at tacky christmas lights adorning the walls while the old priest cracks bad jokes. we roar out of town and head west towards silver city, only to find it isn't all that matt a. had made it out to be. we decide to forgo a night there and instead buy some groceries and head up rt. 15 towards the Gila wilderness. after getting up into the mountains, i feel like dean-incarnate zipping down switchback roads on momentum that twist like a snake and cause you to turn sharp every two seconds. a tourist greets us at the top...'we've got it better than those injuns, don't you think?' as he climbs in his ford f-350. i ponder the question...a night in the back of the truck in an empty parkinglot, we wake up with ice everywhere on the inside windows and roar out on a breakfast of evaporated milk and dried apricots, forgoing our plans at a 10,000ft. mountain climb. for some reason i develop a real hatred for the cliff dwellings and deny them a visit just to spite them. we even miss the wilderness hot springs, though that was a regret i mulled over for miles.

there was a time when there was nothing i would rather do than take a backpacking trip in such an exotic state, but i made amends with myself that such wilderness excursions were neither necessary nor a source of enjoyment. this is not the first time i've felt like this. the only difference is that i abandoned any lingering feelings of guilt over my domestication. my relationship with the wild has become personified in recent years, the more i think about it the more similarities it holds to any human relationship. we fall in love, we fall out of love, going our separate ways, yet being molded by the people that come in and out of our lives.

we stop off at a park cafe to get warm and plot our next course over a cup of joe. our waitress informs us that there was an explosion in T or C the night before; apparently someone backed into a propane tank and set of a series of explosions that rocked that dreary little town. to add to this, seven escape cons are roaming new mexico after a recent bust-out and there is a state-wide manhunt going on as we speak. we snub our butts and decide to head west, not wanting to stick around for a brewing storm.

we pick up a couple of hitchhikers on rt. 10 near the state line, deciding to take our chances that they aren't one of the Texas 7. turns out they were kind folk from minnesota, but they didn't have anything of worth to offer conversation wise and reminded me of the dime-a-dozen 20 something AT. we spent most of the ride in respectful silence. misha and i wonder where all the deans-and-sals are these days.


Monday, August 9, 2010

Journals of Yore

A Kerouacian trip out west with Misha...
Sat. 1/6/01

leaving santa fe, what a trip-to-be. packed bags and loaded truck, a hug to our pseudo ma margaret, and we drift out. a cup of coffee outside the plaza and a glance of underspoken guffaws exchange in response to our lattee-sipping brethren taos bound for skiing and resorting and other spoiled endeavors; a feeling of freer-than-thou confidence, naive maybe...what with my two dollar lumberjack jacket and ripped t-shirt and misha with nothing but his beard, saddlebag, and rugged looks. drop in on ernesto in his gallery and we silently sympathize with his having to deal with camera-clad tourists who innocently wander into the true-blue outskirts of genuine art adobes.

settle in on 25 through albuquerque and bounce in our seats with excitement at the site of ten thousand ft. contours scattered around our destination for the day. shot arrow-straight across flat plains with nothing but land and shacks to our right and left, with nothing but wild-west peaks ahead for our carrot.

roll into forlorn Truth or Consequences near dusk, after stopping at a local gas-station where the teenage attendants are smoking inside and a dusty old hobo is holding up a penthouse to the window, we wonder where we have really ended up. another mutual glance and dumbfounded guffaw at the storybook shack of a hostel we've pulled into, stray dogs and a faded blue dr. pepper machine make us feel right at home for the first night on the road. check in and settle for a cheap dinner of steak and potatoes and coffee at the hilltop cafe, plotting how to best capture the day tomorrow. it's easy for US to come and go with the hand we are dealt...some cash in the bank and no responsibilities, a car, and an affluent hometown. but i look at the sullen face of a teenage waitress in the back, the high-school gas station attendant, and wonder how the fuck you ever get OUT of a town like this. returning, the highlight of our accommodations are the hot springs to soak in and the end of the day. we are joined by an overweight middle aged man doing God-knows-what in a town like this, and a reefer-chomping hippie past his prime, whose stoner laugh makes me cringe. michael, our portly Australian proprietor, is our prime entertainment while we soak, spinning our ears off about the loves and responsibilities of the hot tubs. Misha has me rolling with his to-a-T impersonation...'Uyaeye drayne em'... and we turn in warm, but wake up shivering all night....


Monday, July 26, 2010

Finding God After Leaving Religion

In Response to Steve McSwain's article published in the Huffington Post:


The author claims "you don't have to go to church to know God" like it is some grand revelation. Of course you can find God outside of religion; God isn't confined by religion. But there is definitely something lost by "dropping out."

People want spirituality without religion in the same way that people want sex without commitment. It may be a growing trend, and people may have legitimate reasons for 'dropping out,' but it is certainly not anything worthy of admiration. We will be reaping what we sow in this regard.

We grow up rebeling against our parents because they tell us what to do and teach us right from wrong and punish us, but we are secretly grateful in our adult lives that they took on that responsibility. I would hate to have grown up without parents acting in that capacity. I'm grateful for it, in the same way I am grateful for my religion helping to form my moral center. For all the dysfunction and imperfection, I think it has more benefit than not.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Wedding Pictures!


Debbie and I
Sweaty palms.

The Philly Crew

At the Hilton

4 of 8 new nieces and nephews.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

On the Eve of Our Nuptials

July 10, 2010


My dearest Debbie,

I am sitting in the office, writing this letter to you, my beloved, on the eve of our marriage ceremony. It's 1am, a Saturday night, and everyone staying at the house (John, Todd, Megan, Michael and Maite) has gone to bed. After you left, Todd and everyone came back from the HiIlton, and Tim and Ana were still here. We were all having a good time talking and just relaxing and enjoying each other's company. I am so grateful for everyone coming to celebrate with us, and grateful that we have such great friends, and that we are beginning to have common friends, too! Michael and Maite and I sat out back smoking for a little while, and watched a YouTube clip of Julia Childs making an omelete. Then I went up, and here I am, at the computer, like a knight on the eve of a great battle, trying to document the experience of going to sleep one day single, and waking up the next day a married man. Crazy!

I'm writing to you, because its how I can truly express my love for you in a creative capacity. I hope to revisit this letter on each of our successive anniversaries, as a kind of ritual in our marriage...to remember the day (at least, from my perspective) before one of the biggest days of our lives. We started out writing letters and emails, and as you've said, my writing wooed you;) I don't want that to necessarily die out. So here I am, at the computer, at 1am, typing my little heart out to you in the form of a love letter.

Part of me feels this should be something private, to be kept to ourselves, this letter exchange. But at the same time, you have always encouraged me to blog, to continue to nurture a gift, and to share that gift with the world. You have always encouraged my writing, and have encouraged that in the public sphere as well. It's like that book you have on the bookshelf, "Betty, I Love You, a published love story that is a celebration of marriage.

Scripture revealed itself to me tonight in Matthew 5:15, the gospel reading for our ceremony.

"You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden, nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket."


Love is to be proclaimed! Remember our story from Catholic Match that got published? Remember all those comments? Love stories touch people, and in a good way. That's why I decided to post this. I feel our union is being blessed by God, and it is awesome! I feel, for the first time in a while, that God is with me as I type to you, and speaking through me, in some subtle way, as I speak to you now. I thank God for who you are, and that you've chosen to spend your life with me.

Can't wait to see you tomorrow, my beautiful bride. I love you!


Rob

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Rest of Your Life

I was 'down the shore' this weekend and thinking about irreparablity (is that a word?). It started with me being self-conscious about taking my shirt off to swim because of my jacked-up shoulder.

You see, when I was hit by a police car while riding my bike a year and a half ago, I broke my hand and my collarbone. I had very good surgeons taking care of me, but I did not follow directions very well as far as after-care was concerned. I rarely wore by sling, but the kicker was when I attempted to move a (small) refrigerator by myself (my friend Gerbs was supposed to come by and help but he was late and I was impatient). My collarbone had a screw in it holding it down, you see, and when I put weight on the arm my shoulder kind of dropped, the screw came out a bit, and it never quite healed right, much to the consternation of my very stern doctor. It looks like my collarbone on that side is sticking out of the skin a little, and my shoulder is lower than it should be, and it feels...well, 'almost' right. But not quite right.

I was stupid to have done what I did, though in the scheme of things it's probably no big deal, a cosmetic thing. But its not often you make a mistake and have to live with the fallout for the rest of your life. My shoulder will always be jacked up, and it will always be a reminder to me, 'if only I would have listened.'

* * *

I dated a woman once who cheated on me with someone she met at a bar, and she got herpes, and now she has to live with that the rest of her life. I was upset at the cheating part, but mostly I felt bad for her because she would have to live the rest of her life too with this gross STD reminder of what happened to be irreparable damage done. I'm not bitter about what happened; but it does suck for her.

Adultery, STDs, broken collarbones that don't quite heal right. And tattoos.

I have been wanting to write about tattoos for a while, but never knew quite what it was that made them worth writing about. The aforementioned woman was covered head to toe in tattoos. I thought it was kind of sexy at the time, but now I think it is just so...permanent. Not stupid, not trendy, just permanent. I can't help imagining people with tattoos up their arms (as seems to be the hipster trend now) as an old person walking down the street in a tee shirt, still sporting those hipster tattoos at 70, 80, 90. It's like a mini marriage between your skin and the ink: "Till death do us part." But it's with you for the rest of your life. That's pretty big, bigger than a jacked up shoulder. Or maybe its no big deal at all.

I think people who have tattoos get really tired and annoyed when people point to them and say, "Ooo my, that certainly is interesting. What does that mean?" It's a double edged sword--you got inked because you wanted to stand out, but once you are standing out--even as an 80 year old--you have to account for it. Kind of like having a public blog, you're putting your body on display for the world to admire as a kind of work of art. And nobody really gets art. So it will always be annoying.

I'm not a good candidate for a tattoo (though I have entertained the idea). I change my mind too much about things, have too many interests and identities to stick with just one representative symbol or whatever or 'who I am.' I want to die sporting a clean canvas. I like the aesthetic.

* * *

I remember a kid in high school who's quote in the yearbook was:

Why write something now I'll only regret later?

I thought that was very smart that quote: half smart-ass, and half intellectually smart...like he knew himself very well, or knew the future, or both. We live with regrets, only some are bigger and more permanent than others. Tattoos can be a minor regret (or no regret at all, though if you have a tribal tattoo around your arm like Pamela Anderson, or the word "LOCO" inked across your forehead, or any Looney Toons character on your body, anywhere, well that you might be a good candidate for regret). But they are so fascinating to me because they represent a real aesthetic commitment to something...however goofy and trendy that aesthetic might be.

* * *

A priest told me one time that when we confess our sins to God, he throws them all in the middle of the ocean and plants a sign that says, "NO FISHING." I thought that was cute; I liked that, like we don't have to revisit our sordid past, doctor's orders. But what do you do when your stupid decisions stare back at you in the mirror every time you take your shirt off?

You learn to live with them, I suppose, and take them as lessons learned. We can't live this life without making mistakes, so mistakes, in a way, show that we are really living, living as if we know there are no second-takes, as if we are writing on the wall in permanent marker, that is, as long as we really know it, are fully informed that this is not a dress rehearsal. When we get to Heaven God will ask, 'where are your scars?' I hope I will have a few to sport that aren't the result of mere stupidity.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Great take on G.K. Chesterton and Catholic converts from The New Yorker (esp. the part about the post office):

"Jewish converts to Christianity are relieved to get out from under all those strange Levitical laws on animal hooves. The newly adapted faith, they imagine, is a shining, perfectly balanced system, an intricately worked clock where the cosmos turns to tell the time, and the cuckoo comes out singing every Sunday. An outsider sees the church as a dreamy compound of incense and impossibility, and over-glamorizing its pretensions, underrates its adaptability. A Frenchman or an Italian, even a devout one, can see the Catholic Church as a normally bureaucratic human institution, the way patriotic Americans see the post office, recognizing the frailty and even the occasional psychosis of its employees without doubting its necessity or its ability to deliver the message. Chesterton writing about the church is like someone who has just made his first trip to the post office. Look, it delivers letters for the tiny price of a stamp! You write an address on the label, and they will send it anywhere, literally anywhere you like, across a continent and an ocean, in any weather! The fact that the post office attracts time servers, or has produced an occasional gun massacre, is only proof of the mystical enthusiasm that the post office alone provides! Glorifying the postman beyond what the postman can bear is what you do only if you are new to mail."

- from the column, “Critic at Large,” titled, “The Back of the World,” subtitled, “The Troubling genius of G.K. Chesterton,” by Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker, July 7 & 14, 2008, p58, par 1.”

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Hard Heart

As a young Catholic Worker, my mentor Bruce (who ran the St. Martin de Porres CW in Harrisburg) confessed to me one day as we were sitting outside, "Rob, my biggest fear is that my heart will harden." He was referring to the work of aiding the poor in an inner-city neighborhood. I have a lot of good memories of those days, but that one line stood out for me as a reality of doing God's work.

Bruce left the Worker suddenly amidst some scandal (allegations of sexual impropriety) and I had lost a mentor. There was no closure; just a gaping hole in the CW community. I missed Bruce, and left the community shortly thereafter. Had his heart finally gone cold, and was he just looking for an out? We'll never know. But I do remember the feelings of pain and betrayal that comes with someone you love and respect leaving you.

I think my own heart has hardened as of late, towards God, specifically, and towards all things Christian. I confessed this to my friend Andy today, and that I didn't know quite how to articulate it. I do remember reading in his Confessions that Augustine was initially turned off from the scriptures because they were not at all eloquent. I feel that way with Christian radio, literature, etc. It feels so superstitious or something, using the Bible to justify things, or people constantly talking about "God wants you to do this," or "this or that is God's will" like they know what they are talking about. I do know people of faith that I admire, whose faith I admire. But their explanations for why things happen or for what is going on in life feels so...I don't know...childish.

I have not been praying; that should have been my first red flag. I have my excuses, but in the back of my mind I'm really thinking, 'what good does it do to pray? I'd rather go to bed.' I feel like I'm in a stale marriage with God, where there are no new surprises; all the former professions of love seem childish in retrospect. I feel childish myself, refusing the pray out of spite, almost, for being in such a seemingly loveless relationship. My Invisible Spouse feels more like an imaginary friend. I'm embarrassed at my lack of faith and devotion, but don't know how to get it back. I could pray, but when I pray it is like my heart is constipated, and nothing comes out. How do you heal a hardened heart?

Monday, May 24, 2010

The God Fad

When I was nineteen and had first joined the Church, I felt like I was being given to the Lord in marriage. In fact, it is no surprise that this spousal analogy is used throughout the Old and New Testament to signify God's covenant with His people, and Christ's covenant with the church. It is a very special relationship, and not one to be taken lightly.

But it's easy for devotion to turn into a passing fad. I picture people saying to me, "Remember when you used to pray? Remember when you wanted to devote your whole life to God?" and it scares me a little. I used to be on fire for God; now that fire has dimmed to a flame. What happened, and could it have been prevented? Has God and Christianity become just another thing or cause I was 'into' for a time, and now I have found something to replace that desire? Has the marriage gotten old?

I have a friend who recently got married who said that he misses his "Invisible Friend." I guess he meant his new wife had, in a way, begun to fulfill those things that God fulfilled before. We can lean on God when we are lonely, when we need a friend or someone to talk to, but then someone else comes into our life that fills that role, and the dynamics shift. Where does God 'fit' now? Is God, as we imagine Him, expendable?

I have another friend who joined the Mennonite church as an adult. He was very on fire at first, and involved with the community. Then he moved, and simply failed to engage in religious life anymore. I suppose we all get 'into' things for one reason or another, to fill some need...for community, for acceptance, for purpose, for love, for curiosity's sake...and when we don't 'need' that anymore, we move on. But what do we really move on to? Does our past relationship with God seem like nothing more than an adolescent embarrassment?

I still believe God needs to be number one in a person's life, even before their spouse, for things to be in the right order. I always related to God as a single person; now that is going to change, and so, maybe the dynamics of our relationship will change with it.

And, I suppose, there are different seasons, different stages of development in a person's spiritual life. When we first come to know God, we are like wide-eyed children, eating up all experience with ravenous appetite, and bursting with possibilities. Then there is teenage rebellion. And then you reach your spiritual thirties, when things don't seem to turn out just the way one may have thought. Disappointment, disillusionment set it. And you wonder...just what am I devoted to these days?

I know God has not abandoned me, but sometimes I wonder if I have abandoned God through my lukewarm devotion, lackluster prayer life, and recent apathy towards all things religious. I pray and feel/experience nothing. Spiritual books appear foreign, superstitious, and sometimes, trite. The fact is, I simply seem to be more concerned with the practical aspects of living life, given my circumstances (getting married, looking for work, moving, etc). Unfortunately, God is far from practical, and religion is far from rational.