Sunday, September 27, 2020

Paving the road

Today's Mass readings (link)

If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and the streets of Heaven are paved with gold, what about the road to Heaven? Mud. Mud and potholes, and the signposts are faded, slanted, and often printed in some totally unfamiliar script. And it's uphill! Hell is "down there" somewhere, and good intentions are so slippery you can just sit down and slide to Hell on your sofa cushion. Heaven is a hard climb. 

OK, I'm in danger of getting hopelessly lost in this metaphor, so let's just move on.... 

This is what I want to say: Always we begin again. It's a motto of the Benedictines. My spiritual director used to repeat to me a quote from one of the desert fathers, who when asked how the monks lived, answered, "we fall down and we get up ... we fall down and we get up." The Mass readings today are all about the possibility of change -- for the better or for the worse. It's a really important theme for me! 

I wrote a few weeks ago about ADHD. It is still my hot topic. I'm learning loads about it, reading and reflecting and getting to understand myself better. Not too surprisingly, something that people with ADHD (especially people diagnosed later in life) commonly struggle with is discouragement. We're out-of-the-box thinkers, coming up with genuinely creative ideas and often getting really enthusiastic about them. The down side is that once we've come up with that brilliant idea, we're still out of the box, which can make it really, really hard to follow those creative ideas all the way through to completion. We can imagine an end goal, but we can't figure out how to get from here to there, with a workable plan, with realistic, sequential steps. Even if we come up with a plan, we are incapable of keeping the shiny goal, the overall plan, and the current step in that plan, all in mind simultaneously. Then, too, coming up with a creative idea doesn't stop the flow of other creative ideas, which get more and more distracting as the excitement fades and the implementation work starts to drag on. We get bogged down, we lose interest, we quit. It happens over and over. Failure to achieve, starting strong and dropping out, becomes a pattern. We start to think it's no use trying, because we're bound to fail. It ends up being "I always fail ... I am a failure." And that's a bad place to be.

In today's gospel, Jesus is talking to people, "the chief priests and the elders," who have the opposite problem: they're complacent. Or maybe they are just too good at keeping their dirty laundry private, they can't grow because they can't admit -- to others, maybe even to themselves -- that the righteous mask is a mask. The people who do change and grow are the prostitutes and tax collectors (which in the New Testament context really means "traitors") who heard John the Baptist's message of conversion and believed. They believed -- it's not about believing that they'd better repent before God comes and casts all their sinful souls into fiery Gehenna. It's about believing that they aren't defined by, or limited to, their past sins. It's about believing that they CAN change, that they have the potential within them to be better than they have been so far.

It's not only about believing, of course, but it's a surprisingly important piece of the puzzle. There's a concept called "self-efficacy," that means something like your belief in your ability to rise to a challenge, to learn new things, to perform hard tasks, to accomplish big goals, that kind of thing. It's narrower than self-esteem, but of course it feeds into it. My battered self-efficacy has gotten better over the past year and a half in solitude, for a few reasons. One, I am now living a lifestyle that largely cushions my weaknesses and gives scope to my strengths. Two, I have been focusing a lot on getting to know myself better, to have a much clearer understanding of my strengths and weaknesses, separating what's innate from what's learned from what I only wish were true. And three, I've learned more about how to learn, how to grow, how to change, a step at a time. How to take a step at a time without losing sight of the goal, how to keep my eye on the happy goal without stumbling over the steps. 

My bell has just rung for Compline, so I'm going to stop trying to hammer this blog post into perfection and let it go public. That is, in fact, one of the big lessons I've been learning for self-efficacy. I'll leave you with two books I've found really helpful, both by author Stephen Guise: How to be an Imperfectionist and Mini-Habits. OK, make it three: Better than Before, by Gretchen Rubin. 

Good night and God bless you. 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The parable of the day laborers

Today's Mass readings (link)

In today's gospel reading, Jesus tells the story of a vineyard owner who goes down to the local Home Depot (or was it a 7-11? my translation just says "the marketplace") early in the morning, and there finds a bunch of men loitering around hoping to pick up a day's work. He agrees on a standard day's wage, loads them into his pickup truck and takes them back to the vineyard, where they immediately start working. He goes back a few hours later and brings back another pickup-truckload of day laborers, again at lunchtime, again in the afternoon, and then again just an hour before the working day is finished. When time comes to start paying them off, the boss tells his foreman to call the workers forward, starting with the last hired. Each one is paid the standard day's wage. Seeing this, the ones who had been there first perked up, thinking that they would no doubt get paid more since they had been working hard for many more hours than the later ones. But no, every worker received the same wage, one day's pay, whether the day had been long or short. The early birds grumbled about it, but the boss said, what's your beef? Isn't that the wage you agreed on this morning? You got exactly what was promised. So what if I choose to pay these other men the same amount, even though they started later? It's not coming out of your pocket - it's my money, to do with as I please.

So ... to put this into the context of the other two readings. Paul is in prison in Rome, facing the very real possibility of execution. He writes to the Philippians, and in this excerpt from that letter he is telling them that he doesn't know whether to wish for death or a reprieve. He longs to go home to Jesus, he looks forward to it eagerly, and yet he is so very aware of how much work there is left for him to do, and how much good he could do if he stays. How many of us have ever heard someone say they wish they were dead -- not because life has become intolerable, but because the next life, life after life, holds such a bright attraction for them? 

And in the first reading, Isaiah tells us to turn, turn around, let go of our evil ways, seek the Lord, "who is generous in forgiving. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts."

God's ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts. We, in our short-sighted mortal way, fear the future, fear death, and hate suffering. We, in our self-centered human way, have a keen sense of justice (it should always be in our own favor). We are not content to have enough for our own needs, we want to have as much or a little more than the next guy. And we, in our ordinary mortal way, think that suffering and death are "bad," and peace, prosperity, and pleasure are "good."

Why, why, why? We want to know --- Why do bad things happen to good people? But what does God answer? Well, I can't be so presumptuous as to place my thoughts up there with God's above your thoughts, but this is what I think. I think it's the wrong question. I think there isn't even any question. There is only an answer, and the answer is only Love. God's answer to "why do human beings suffer and die?" seems to me to be ... to become a human being, and suffer, and die, with us. God's answer to suffering is to walk right into suffering, look it in the eye, take it by the hand, and embrace it. And to embrace us, each one of us individually and all collectively, in our sorrow and in our joy, in our birthing and in our dying, in our stumbling and in our soaring.

God's answer is "I have given, am giving you enough." Not necessarily enough food or money or human affection, not necessarily enough to keep us out of suffering and struggling and dying, but enough of Himself to keep us in existence, enough of Himself and of His infinite Love to let us, finally, rise far above this "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" mortal span of life. And what can we learn from this? When confronted with another's suffering, when the vast sea of human suffering seems so to dwarf our feeble efforts to combat or redress it? 


It is more important, more valuable, more right to love, and if possible to make that love known, than it is to fix any visible problem. My mother taught me, when I was just a little girl, when I would fall down and skin my knee: wash it, squirt it with Bactine, and slap a Band-aid on it ... but none of that is what stopped me crying. No, Mom would "kiss it and make it all better." That's what I remember. That's what healed my hurts when I was a child, and it's the best thing we can do to heal one another today, and it's how God makes it all better, too. Love, only love. Amen.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Binding and loosing

Today's Mass readings: 

Ezekiel 33:7-9, in which the prophet is told that he has the obligation to call out evil -- that if he sees someone doing wrong, and fails to call them on it, then they will be punished for their sin and he, too, will be held responsible for their guilt. If, on the other hand, he calls them out and they ignore his warning and continue in their sins, then they will be punished but he will be held guiltless.

Romans 13:8-10, in which Paul says that everything in the Law -- thou shalt not lie or steal or kill or covet -- is rolled up in the one commandment: "love your neighbor as yourself." Don't get hung up on details, just love.

Matthew 18:15-20, in which Jesus tells his disciples: if someone wrongs you, confront him (or her, etc.) privately. Maybe he'll hear you and apologize and change his ways, and you will have done him good as well as yourself. If they don't listen, then talk it over with some friends, and if they agree that this person is in the wrong, then bring them along and confront him together. If he still won't admit his fault, then make it public, and let the entire assembly judge. Then if the person still persists, you give up, let the relationship go.

So, I have a few thoughts about this. First of all, let me just point out that in biblical times, especially in Ezekiel's day but on up through Jesus and Paul as well, the word "sin" did not automatically make you think of SEX. There were sexual sins that were condemned, but other than adultery, which most of us still consider cheating and lying and bad, they just weren't what the prophets were paying attention to. Sin meant oppressing the poor, enriching yourself at someone else's expense, lying, cheating, stealing. And idolatry, especially in Ezekiel's time, but I'm not going to try to get into that today.

Second, we have an obligation to confront sin. That may mean better communication with your partner, not expecting them to read your mind when something upsets you, allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to say "when you do that, I feel as if you don't care, and my feelings are hurt." Or it may mean speaking truth to power, signing petitions for change, using our voice at the ballot box or as a shareholder or as a consumer, to advocate for justice and right. 

Third, we have to give the other person a chance to respond. This means, one, giving people the benefit of the doubt as far as motives go. Like Paul says, all the Law is really about LOVE. Two, speaking to them in a way that gives them room to admit the wrong, not boxing them into a corner or making them defensive, not demonizing them, allowing them room to save face while still making the change you're asking for. Similarly, in public discourse, we should keep an eye on our own motivations -- it's really easy to confuse showing off how enlightened and virtuous I am with making a public statement of conscience in order to raise the public consciousness about an issue. It might end in the same action, but one is vanity and feeds divisiveness, the other is integrity and inspires emulation.

Fourth, we have to be willing to let go. We cannot control our neighbor or force them to do good. We must have the courage of our convictions, but we also have to recognize our limits. Again, this looks different at different levels ... one on one, it might mean letting a relationship end. On a larger level, it might mean taking the time and effort to research the corporate practices of the companies we buy things from, in order to really turn our backs on ones that really don't care about anything but enriching themselves. 

In politics -- Ezekiel wasn't going to give up his citizenship if corruption and oppression didn't end, he wasn't going to shake Judah's dust off his feet and go petition for asylum in Moab or Edom. But, well, I'm thinking of a relative of mine who has, in recent years, gotten so demoralized about the state of American politics that I really worry about him becoming depressed. He works and works for truth and goodness and right, and then things go wrong in an election and he seems to feel as though he, personally, has failed. It's a burden of guilt that is totally understandable, but definitely inappropriate. We cannot solve all the world's problems single-handedly, we just can't. It's like St. Augustine said: "Pray as if everything depended on God. Work as if everything depended on you." Both/and. 

The point is, we have a responsibility to try, to reach out. We do not have a responsibility, or even a right, over the other person's response. We have to try, but we also have to be prepared to let go. 

Anyone want to contribute any other thoughts to this topic? Feel free to comment.

Peace out....

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Love is an Action Verb

LOVE is a word with a lot of definitions. It gets confusing! In fact, I don't think we have nearly enough words in English to cover all the things "love" is used for.



  1. a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person.
  2. a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection, as for a parent, child, or friend.
  3. sexual passion or desire.

verb (used with object), loved, lov·ing.

  1. to have love or affection for: All her pupils love her.
  2. to have a profoundly tender, passionate affection for (another person).
So this covers filial love, romantic love, friendly love, sexual attraction ... all nice, warm, pleasant feelings. Nothing to do with the Christian definition of "love," actually. Nothing, really, to do with the grown-up definition of "love." 

St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13:4-6, says:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

The ten commandments start out with "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength; and love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus says, "love your enemies." 

You can't "love your enemies" according to the dictionary definition. It's an oxymoron. Then again, that dictionary definition, which defines love as a feeling, excuses the man who slaps his partner around because he sees her smile at another man. He "loves" her, and therefore it is natural that he feels jealousy; and if "love" is nothing but a feeling that brings and keeps a couple together, if a mere feeling can motivate pair-bonding, then why shouldn't the mere feeling of jealousy motivate violence? 

Christians, and grown-ups generally, aren't meant to be driven by our passions. We are meant to act in accordance with our conscience and our principles, sometimes in opposition to our feelings. Ask any truly happily married couple, and they will tell you frankly that love is an action verb. Love is a choice you have to make every day. Love is patient, love is humble, love compromises, love is vulnerable, love forgives, love listens

Exodus 23:4-5 says, 
When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.

To paraphrase: if you see a car on a narrow shoulder, at night in the rain, with someone struggling to change the tire, and that car has a big bumper sticker on it advertising the evil, wicked political candidate of the evil, wicked party that you hate -- then you shall pull over and help, at least by pulling up behind them with your flashers on to shield them from getting hit by a car while they change the tire, or at the very least, you shall call #77 and alert the state troopers that someone needs help. Even if it's election day and they're on their way to vote for the evil, wicked, bad guys, you still help. THAT is love, in the Christian sense, in the grown-up human sense.

And sometimes, it's not possible to actually help someone, even someone we feel loving towards. Some illnesses are incurable. Sometimes, love is a nothing more than a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes, there's a pandemic on, and you can only video-phone or send a card. Sometimes, love is looking straight into the eyes of a panhandler, whose material needs are way beyond your ability to meet. Sometimes it's listening, with attention and an open mind. 

THIS is ultimately why I remain a Christian, despite all the glaring shortcomings of my Church. God loves us, so much, so deeply, so completely, so intimately. This is how I experience God's love. It's not about making everything OK. God's love doesn't keep things from going wrong, it doesn't keep people from getting sick and dying, it doesn't keep me from screwing things up, it doesn't keep pandemics and wildfires and hurricanes from happening, it doesn't keep war and rape and child abuse from happening. It's about holding my hand through it all, holding me in a loving embrace through it all. It's compassionate love, love that goes through the pain right along with me. Christianity describes a God who chose, out of compassionate love, to enter into my suffering with me, to show me that suffering is not the the ultimate meaning of life, that it is finite, and that it is smaller than love. 

The Christian God is incarnate, carnal, messy, bloody, weak, betrayed, physically overcome. He feels pain and anguish and betrayal and fear, and He chooses to stay, He is not defeated by the pain. And then He does it again every single day, in the Eucharist -- I'm not saying the wafer feels pain when we chew it up, I just mean it's so small, so insignificant, so meek and mild, like Elijah's "still, small voice." And yet, it's Love. It's intimate. It is Communion, two-way union, between the limitless God and limited me, and all-encompassing, although it looks and tastes like nothing at all. 

Some of the most loving people I know are atheists, so I can only put this in the first person. For me, it is in knowing myself loved by God, in feeling how God embraces suffering to embrace me in my suffering, in seeing how small, how paltry, how unimpressively God presents Himself to us, that I am somehow enabled to embrace my paltry, obnoxious, stubborn, wrong-headed self, and my neighbor, and even the ones who might be my enemies. To love, with my actions, by the grace of God, no matter what my feelings might be. Amen.