The debt we owe God and our forefathers

I’ve recently been on a kick of watching rock climbing documentaries. (Of course that included ‘Free Solo’, which I may comment on later.) One of them was one I had seen a few years ago called ‘Valley Uprising’ which was about the history of rock climbing in Yosemite going back to the early 50’s.

The movie spends a fair amount of time on the culture of rock climbing throughout its history and the rebellious nature of much of it. Much of the movie it glorifies it.

As Catholics, we need to be careful when it comes to counter-cultural things. Our faith is *VERY* counter-cultural, even when most people in the culture are Catholic. Even when most people embrace the basic principles of Christ, His radical call of living a self-less lifestyle will always elude most people. The human condition just has too much pride; too much selfishness for everyone in any society to embrace Christ’s call in its fullness.

So we’d better be careful before we write off a counter-cultural movement.

The general ethos of the rock climbing community, particularly of the historical elite climbers (i.e. before corporate sponsorship made it so the elite could squeak out a living that way), is one of poverty for the sake of rock climbing. They’d live on very little and camp right by the rocks.

But yet again, we’d better be careful before we write off a movement that embraces intentional poverty… there are plenty of those within the Church.

But yet I couldn’t escape a feeling of disdain for their overall lifestyle choices and the glorification of those choices in the documentary. And I think it came down to the debt they refused to admit they had…

All of us have life because our parents and their parents and their parents before them, made the sacrifice to be parents. All of the conveniences we have, everything from roads to safe drinking water to metals to computers, are the result of the innovation of past generations. We benefits greatly from the past sacrifices of others.

I think we all have a responsibility to contribute to that on-going development of humanity. We have a debt that needs to be paid if we can feel justified in taking advantage of all that led to us.

It doesn’t have to be parenthood, although I think it is a very good way. It just has to be the pursuit of some human excellence for self-less reasons. It can even be something that you fail at, as long as the goal was to in some way contribute to the opus of what we have all been given.

And I just don’t see that in much of the glorification of obsessive and life long pursuit of excellence in some hobby… at least not as it plays out in our current era. I think there are many hobbies that contribute to the world. I’d even argue that rock climbing could be one of them. But the key to me is why is one doing it. Is one doing it so that the hobby can be a way for more people to enjoy God’s creation? Or are they doing it as thrill seekers or for fame and glory?

In fairness, I think the answer varies from person to person. I’m tempted to believe in the noble pursuits of John Salathe, Royal Robbins, John Bachar, Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold. It seems to me they saw something noble in rock climbing and desired to perfect it for the overall good of the world. (But in fairness, I don’t know any of these people outside of a handful of documentaries and a few dozen articles, so I could be overly charitable to some or all of them).

In contrast, I can’t see anything noble in Dean Potter, Warren Harding or Jim Bridwell. Although, just as much as I must admit I don’t know those I admire well enough to properly judge, I could just as easily be being too quick to condemn the above people.

But taking a step back from the actual people to the conceptual, it seems there are two groups: Those who are climbing to walk away from any sense of the greater good and are doing so for personal and selfish reasons. And right beside them are people, perhaps living very similar lives, who are there for the pursuit of something noble and good.

And my hope for the climbing community is that they could see the difference (and if this documentary accurately portrays things, I don’t think they currently do). That they could see the difference between someone who is a leach, that has no sense of the great gift of life they have been given and a responsibility to give something back, and someone who climbs with a profound sense of the wonderful creation they have been given and their responsibility to give something back to it.

Homily for 2nd Sunday of Lent

(Note: I’ve struggled with whether to post my homilies on the blog. I don’t write them with the intent that they are to be posted. I don’t want to let the thought that I might post them affect what I write. They are intended for the audience at Mass and I think it is important they stay that way. But what I’ve decided is that I’ll post them if I think they are generally appropriate and just not post the ones I think should stay local to the parish. We’ll see how it goes and I reserve the right to change my mind later. 🙂 )

Readings: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/031719.cfm

People ask, what did Peter do wrong?  Why was it so wrong of him to request to make 3 tents?  The textbook answer is that Peter didn’t want it to end.  He didn’t want to go down the mountain to regular life.  And so he was trying to extend it by setting up camp.  But I think there’s something else here.  Because the moment was not over.  God still had one more miracle to perform: To speak from the cloud and remind Peter, James and John that Jesus was His son.  Peter wasn’t necessarily wrong to want this moment to continue.

So what then?  I think the 1st reading from Genesis today shows numerous parallels.  In the 1st reading God takes Abram outside to show him the stars.  In the Gospel Jesus takes the 3 up a mountain.  Abram falls into a trance.  The 3 are overcome by sleep.  Abram is given a vision when he wakes.  The 3 wake up to the Transfiguration.  And finally, both passages end with God speaking those present.  These events have strong parallels.

Except for one thing… Abram feels no need to insert his own will into the unfolding events.  He’s content to be silent and let them unfold.  Peter on the other hand, refuses to let it play out on God’s terms and insists on talking.  He insists on interrupting the event and inserting his own thoughts.

I find this explanation for Peter’s failure much more appropriate for us.  Perhaps among certain monasteries or similar religious communities, they need to hear that there comes a time to leave the sanctuary and go do God’s work in the world.  But we’re not that community.  We’re a community that is too distracted by the world as it is, that doesn’t spend enough time with God.  The last thing we need to hear is that we need to go back out into the world.

No, what we need is very different.   We need to spend more listening to God.  And the only way that’s going to happen is if we stop talking and turn off all the noise around us.

We are inundated with noise and conversation.  Get it from our phones, constantly pinging at us with e-mail and texts, with Facebook notifications and twitter.  We get it from our TVs, with everything from the news and talking head shows to sports to comedy and drama.  We get it from our car stereos, with more talk and a plethora of music.  We are so inundated with noise that for most of us we find the idea of silence scary.  So let me tell you a scary story.

About two months ago I was at the hospital with a family whose father and patriarch was in a coma and near death.  I had already completed the formal prayers I had come to say, but I wanted to stay and hold vigil with the family.  As time went on I found myself struggling to resist the temptation to say something, in part because I had nothing meaningful to say.  And so time passed: 10 minutes of nothing to say.  20 minutes of nothing to say.  30 minutes of nothing to say.  And I started to feel like they were unsure what I was still doing there.  Should I just leave?

But then, after a long awkward silence, the eldest brother spoke up.  “Deacon, I have a question I need to ask you.  Is God angry with our family?”  You see, this was the 4th death for this family in the last year.  They’d lost a mother, a mother-in-law, a husband in his 50’s and now their father.  And their faith was shaken.

I knew then why I had stayed through a half-hour of silence.  He needed me there to tell them. “No, God is not angry. God loves you!”  But God knew that question was never going to come in 5 minutes.  They needed the time to reflect and think and to find the courage to ask what was bugging them deep in their heart.  God knew that if I just told them right away that God loves them, their hearts were not ready to receive it.  And so he had all of us wait that 30 minutes in silence so all of us would be ready.  So that God could tell them “I love you!”

I think we all need to ask ourselves: How many times in my life have I refused to be quiet and wait for whatever God has to say to me?  How many times have I missed the opportunity to hear what I most desperately needed to hear from God because I was too impatient and too willing to let God be interrupted by all the noise in my life? When you get home today, find some time to be truly quiet.  Turn off the music and the TV.  Turn off your phone, not just silent mode, but OFF, and banish it to a different room.  Be truly silent.  Not just for 10 or 20 minutes.  Perhaps not even 30 minutes will be enough.  And ask God that question: “God, what do you have to say to me?  What have I missed hearing from you because I’ve refused to find truly quiet time for prayer?”  I beg of you.  Find the time to do this.  If you want to see Christ transfigured;  If you want to know God in all His glory… all you must do is listen.  So find that time, every week if you can, to turn off all the noise and distraction so that the only voice that is left, is God’s.

Process and methods are important

A big part of my heart was overjoyed by the news that Governor Newsom is putting a moratorium on the death penalty in California and considering commuting the death sentences (but not life imprisonment) of everyone on death row. It is long past due that Californians recognize the futility of the death penalty:

  • It’s extremely expensive, costing an average of $1.1 million at trial and $175k extra a year per inmate for their special treatment (both housing and appeals).
  • In practice very few are executed, only 13 since it was re-instituted in 1976 in California. In that same time, at least 70 died of natural causes, 24 committed suicide, and 6 died of other non-natural causes (drug overdose, murder, etc.). (I say “at least” because the above data is from 2015).
  • There’s no meaningful scientific evidence it is a significant deterrent to committing capital level crimes.
  • Similarly there is no evidence it brings peace to the families of the victims. If anything, the constant appeals and legal wrangling prevent them from moving on with their lives.
  • At the same time, all of these appeals and length legal processes are important and valuable. 5 people in California were convicted and sentence to the death penalty only to later be exonerated. Without those appeals, it would greatly increase the chance that someday an innocent person would be executed.

So, even if one isn’t willing to listen to a moral/religious argument about the sanctity of life, it still seems like there’s a strong argument to say “Why are we doing this? What’s the point?”

So thank God for those who fight against the death penalty. And I am *mostly* thankful for Governor Newsom’s decision.

Why only “mostly”? Because I’m a big believer that the process by which we accomplish things is *EXTREMELY* important. There are so many unintended negative consequences when things are done in under-handed ways or when things are rushed at a faster pace that the public is ready to accept.

Obviously we’ll never know the alternate outcomes, but I think it is possible the civil war could have been avoided and we still could have eradicated slavery in the US by the end of the 19th century. It happened in many other places around the world in that same time without over a half-million lives being lost.

I’m not enough of an expert on the matter to speak intelligently to the specifics of how the civil war could have been avoided. All I know is that the 2nd half of the 19th century saw profound change on the subject throughout the world in countries far and wide, from Brazil, to Cambodia, to the Ottoman Empire, to the Netherlands, to Spain, to Cuba. It’s not unreasonable to think that given more time, the US could have made the transition without resulting to civil war.

Obviously I don’t think the death penalty will result in anything as extreme as a civil war, but I do think it could have notable societal impacts of a negative nature. The simple reality is that both the American and California public are adamantly for the death penalty. In California, propositions to overturn the death penalty have been put before the voters multiple times in the last 20 years and every time they have been soundly rejected.

To make matters worse, Newsom said *NOTHING* in his campaign for governor about this. The only quote that any reporter has dug up was not even from the campaign but 2 years earlier when he was lieutenant governor but advocating for the most recent proposition to overturn the death penalty. To quote from the article:


While campaigning for the death penalty repeal measure in 2016, Newsom told The Modesto Bee editorial board he would “be accountable to the will of the voters” on the death penalty if he became governor.

https://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/capitol-alert/article227489844.html

Update… I found a more complete quote in a video from that same interview:

I have enormous sensitivity and respect for people that disagree. And so my position has always been, if ever I was in a position to actually be accountable… would be accountable to the will of the voters. I would not get my personal opinions in the way of the public’s right to make a determination of where they want to take us (inaudible) the death penalty

https://www.modbee.com/news/politics-government/election/article103934031.html

I think Newsom had a responsibility to be honest during the governor campaign. He needed to say that if elected he would consider putting a moratorium on the death penalty and commuting the death sentences of everyone on death row. I think this is particularly true considering his quote from 2016 that implies exactly the opposite. Might he have lost because of that? Perhaps. He won by a pretty sizable margin so perhaps not. But this is an issue that gets a lot of people worked up, even a lot of Democrats that voted for him.

But risking losing is exactly why it is what he should have done. The right answer is always to act with integrity and try to convince the opposition of the rightness of your cause. Deception and going back on one’s promises leads to great angst in the population.

I think a great deal of the political angst we see in society today, that has led to the polarization of our country, is due to decades of deceptive and underhanded behavior by politicians and political parties. People are sick of it and running to more and more extreme measures to try and combat it. If we want to fix this, what is most needed is politicians with integrity and honesty. It’s more important than their specific policy positions (within reason).

So, while a big part of me is joyful today, I must admit there is a tinge of fear and disappointment. I’m not sure this was the right way to go about this.

Can we have both female deacons and married priests?

Two hot topics for Catholic insiders has been the investigation Pope Francis launched into whether the Church might be able to have women deacons and, separately, whether the Church will allow more married priests, starting with South America.

Starting with the female deacons, from what I understand an investigation was completed and handed to the Pope. It more or less said that there were women deacons into the early middle ages and many of them had a ceremony when they became women deacons that looked nearly identical to the ordination ceremony of male deacons. There’s less clarity in the similarity of their roles however and they seemed in many cases to have been chosen to do things that would be imprudent to have men do, like baptizing adult women (which was often done nude).

In what seems like a completely different topic, there’s an upcoming council where the issues of expanding the ranks of married priests will be discussed. From what I understand there’s a huge shortage in South America, particularly in remote areas like the Amazon.

A very interesting article in Crux discussed some of the concerns with increasing the number of married priests. One of them was this:

There is also a fear that ordaining viri probati would create a caste system in the priesthood. Less educated, married, and ordained under special circumstances, these priests would be seen as second-class clergy in the Church.
When the permanent diaconate was first established, the term “lay deacons” was often used to describe the new clergy. Even today, permanent deacons labor under rules on using clerical dress and titles that seem more concerned with making sure no one confuses them with priests than on making sure people know they are clergy. Viri probati priests could face similar problems.

https://cruxnow.com/news-analysis/2019/03/08/as-debate-on-married-priests-reignites-ordaining-viri-probati-faces-hurdles/

It seems to me that a hidden (or at least infrequently talked about) dichotomy exists between these two thrusts. I’m not expert enough to know whether the Church could or should ordain women deacons. I’ll leave that to the wisdom of the Church and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

But what *IS* clear is that there will be no women priests. The Church has been pretty clear on the subject. Pope John Paul II wrote a whole document on it – Ordinatio Sacerdotalis – and Pope Francis has re-iterated that thought.

So it seems to me that if we are concerned about the fact that there might be a caste system between different types of clergy (and make no mistake, deacons are clergy) and women could never be priests, allowing women deacons would permanently ensure that caste system existed. There would be a class of clergy who were fundamentally ineligible to be the other types of clergy. It would further the divide between deacons and priests.

Having married priests on the other hand would seem to re-unite the priests and deacons. If we had some of both, it would suggest that they shared more in common than before, where only one had married members. The fear is that married priests would be seen as “lower” the way today’s deacons are often seen.

But that issue is resolvable (and in my opinion is slowly being resolved). I’d even argue that married priests may help to resolve the issues. In my opinion, part of what makes deacons seem “lower” is that we are “part time” ministers. We aren’t employed by the Church by nature of our ordination. We have to provide for our own income for us and our families. This makes us appear as a less dedicated, less engrossed in the day to day life of the Church as priests, who are full-time employed by the Church.

Having married priests would I think open doors to employed deacons (if the Church is supporting the priest’s family, they could conceivably do it for the deacons too) or if the Church went the other way and married priests were “part time” it would hopefully eventually lead to an understanding that employment is not the fundamental thing that shows where our hearts fully lie.

All of this is a long way of saying that I think the Church is likely faced with a choice: It can either widen the wedge between deacons and priests by ordaining women, and thereby make it even harder to imagine a world with married priests (since the lone example of married clergy are now further from the priesthood) or work harder to re-unite all levels of clergy, and by necessity accept that it means that women can not be deacons.

But, perhaps there’s something big I’m not seeing. I’m very open to other ideas on the subject. Thoughts?

Thoughts on Jesus in the desert

Today is the 1st Sunday of Lent. The common theme for all 3 years of the Lectionary is Jesus in the desert. What came to mind when I was preparing to proclaim the Gospel is that there are two different vantage points to look at temptation:

  1. From the viewpoint of the person doing the tempting… the devil in this case.
  2. From the viewpoint of the person being tempted… Jesus in this case.

Because I don’t want to have constantly clarify my words, for the remainder of this post I will use the word tempt (and it’s variants) for #1 and the word entice (and it’s variants) for #2.

I don’t know if I’m alone in thinking this, but I’ve always thought of Jesus as having not been very enticed by the Devil’s tempting. Sure, those are pretty big and powerful things to tempt someone with:

  • You’re hungry? Here’s a way to get some food.
  • For most human beings, the prospect of power and honor is very enticing.
  • Similarly, the desire to show off our capabilities, to prove how awesome we are, is also very enticing to most of us.

But I tend to think of Jesus in perfect terms, usually in divine terms, or when I think of Him in human terms I think of him as being the perfection of human behavior. So, while the rest of us would be pretty enticed by the Devil’s temptation, I generally assume that Jesus wouldn’t have been similarly enticed.

But is that right?

We should also remember that Jesus was fully human during His time on earth. Part of what we believe about the human condition is that we have those temptations that are very enticing to us. It differs from person to person, but we all have multiple things that entice us greatly. For me, food is on that list. I struggle with my weight (losing the battle too often). The sin of gluttony is one I confess all too regularly. But for others, beyond massive hunger, they aren’t much enticed by food. For them it might be lust or sloth or greed. Some of us struggle with many enticements.

Thus it seems fair to assume that Jesus too, being fully human, had his things that enticed him. And the Devil, being capable of seeing things us humans can not, had to be well aware of what to tempt Christ with. And so, one has to think, that Jesus was indeed much enticed by what the Devil was using to tempt.

The question then becomes, if Jesus was so enticed, as enticed as we are when we fail to resist the enticement, how was it that he was able to resist? We all have so much experience with the temptations of the world catching us at our weakest moments, when we lack the fortitude to resist what entices us, and us falling into sin. How did Jesus do better?

I think that’s where my first instinct of assuming that Jesus wasn’t all that enticed comes from. I have a hard time believing that someone could be so enticed and still resist. But that might also be the most powerful lesson in this passage from the Gospel.

Jesus found the strength to resist by tapping into the divine. No matter how much He was enticed, no matter how much *we* are enticed, God offers us His strength to combat it. It may be difficult for us in our humanity to believe that or to trust God or to reach out to God enough to grab onto that strength, but Jesus demonstrates that it *IS* possible. He was enticed by the Devil in the most comprehensive way the Devil could conceive. The Devil wanted nothing more than to turn Christ against His Father. Yet Christ found the power to resist in God.

I think if we can all learn that lesson, to believe deep in our hearts that we can resist any temptation no matter how enticing it is, by tapping into the power of God, we’d be far better off.

Do you fully love your spouse?

I’ve been exposed to a number of difficult marital situations in the last few weeks. I can’t go into the details, but it’s heart-wrenching stuff. There are deep wounds that threaten to sever their relationships… perhaps permanently.

One of the things that can be very difficult is to well communicate what true love looks like, without overstating things. How does one make it clear that there are times of abuse or serial infidelity where separation is absolutely necessary but that doesn’t mean we are excused from our promises to self-less love beyond normal human means? Worse yet, how does one well communicate what the criteria might be to determine when one insists on a separation is acting selfishly or whether it is actually self-less?

This is particularly difficult when the issue of divorce in those difficult cases comes up but the Church rightly says that divorce is not itself grounds for an annulment. How can the Church say it is right to be separated, perhaps for the rest of one’s life including divorce, but at the same time say that there is still a marriage there?

While praying about how to speak about this, a parallel occurred to me that I think is worth pondering. It may not be a complete parallel, but I think it at least helps re-frame the conversation in terms that make sense to most people:

Ask yourself “How would I respond if it was my adult child, instead of my spouse, who was acting this way?”

You see, I think we as parents more naturally get self-less love with our children. We will *always* love our children and they will be our children “until death do us part”. Even if they murder or rape someone… they will still be our children. Even if they cheat on their spouse, your daughter/son-in-law who you’ve come to deeply love, you may be very disappointed in your child, but you will still love them.

Even if they get addicted to drugs or become physically abusive, and you have to separate yourself from them for the health of the family (and yourself) and it may be many years before you can have any sense of reconciliation… you will still love them. They will still be your child. Even if you never can see them again because they never repent of their sins and their harmful behavior, you will still love them and they will still be your child. And you will always be hoping and waiting and praying for the day that this comes to an end and you can hold your beloved child in your arms again. And you will do everything in your power to ensure that you won’t do anything to create non-essential barriers to reconciling.

That is self-less love. That is the love we are called to for our spouses. It is a love that is both realistic about the current problems and what must be done, but at the same time is time-less and unbreakable. I think it might be that if we ask ourselves “If my adult child were to do what my spouse has done that has hurt me so badly, how would I respond?” we might just be able to see more clearly the sort of love we are called to for our spouses.

Charitably reading others and a ‘joyful’ Lent

Our parish hands out ‘The Little Black Book’ reflections for Lent every year. For those not familiar with them, they are a booklet that has 2 pages dedicated to each day of Lent with a reflection of that day. They say it should take about 6 minutes each day.

I have to admit, I wasn’t too pleased with today’s reflection. It starts with “Before the latest revision of the Roman Missal, one of the prefaces for Lenten Masses thanked God because ‘each year you give us this joyful season…'” The reflection then goes on to talk about why the word joyful is used.

This is my objection: The text of the Missal was changed for a reason. The Church has itself decided that joyful is not the right word. Why are they insisting on sticking to a word that the Church has decided was not right?

To make matters worse, the reflection in the Little Black Book isn’t arguing that Lent is joyful, it is arguing that Lent is a positive thing. To use it’s words, “If I make this a good Lent, I’ll find myself a happier person.” I also speaks of Lent being “invigorated, energized, enlivened…”

And that I would agree with. Lent is a positive thing. I’d bias towards words like holy, edifying, reconciling, purifying and strengthening, all of which are positive things. And so while my choice of words may have been slightly different, I’d overall agree.

Which makes it all the more baffling to me why they’d stick with an unnecessary reference to a Missal translation we haven’t been using for 8 years. Why!?! And I was tempted to assume their motives were less that honorable. That they were “obsessed” with the old translation and couldn’t let it go. But then I read the ‘about’ page in the back of the book:

“In 1999, Bishop Ken Untener … decided to create a Little Black Book. … Bishop Untener died 15 years ago, on March 27, 2004, but his writings, talks and homilies are the basis for the reflections on the right-hand side of ‘Little Books’.”

Which brings a great deal of clarity. I suspect the reflection for the day today has been the same since 1999 or at least since 2004. And the care-takers of this ministry are trying very hard to be as true to Bishop Untener’s writings as possible. And so they’re stuck with a difficult problem. They’ve got the words he used and decided are best for this day of Lent, but they reference words that changed in the Missal 6 years *after* his death. How are they to reconcile this? Do they find some other writing of his to substitute even though it is not the thought he had for this day? Do they change the overall wording and risk perhaps changing the intended message he wanted? Or do they add a quick preface to the text to indicate that these were the words before the Missal change so as to leave his text as intact as possible?

Obviously they chose the last route. And while I might argue it would have been wiser to go with the middle option, it’s hard to argue with the good intentions of the care-takers of these booklets. There’s no reason to presume they’re “obsessed” with the old translation. It’s likely quite the opposite.

The point of all of this is that we need to be really careful when we get frustrated with others, particularly when we take it to the level of assuming bad motives. Most of the time there is so many things that contribute to a persons decisions and actions. Most of the time we’re unaware of much of it. And while we may have still argued for a different decision than the one we made, I’ve found that most of the time, when I learn the back-story of a decision/action I disagree with, I find that my ability to ascribe negative motives to them usually goes away.

Our society is in a really bad place in this regard currently. Far too often we find the flimsiest excuses we can find to ascribe bad motives to others. We’re waiting for the opportunity to condemn.

But this is not what Christ calls us to. We are called to assume the best of others. We are called to remember that everyone is made in the image and likeness of God.

Perhaps this is yet another thing we should all be working on this Lent.

The failure of Lenten resolutions

I know it seems odd to write on the 1st day of Lent about failing at our Lenten resolutions, but a big part of what makes me choose my disciplines for Lent is whether I think I can stick to them. So the topic of failure is on my mind right from the start.

It seems to me there’s a parallel between New Years resolutions and what we’re “giving up for Lent”. Much of what people give up for Lent are things that are bad for them. Indeed, my list includes soda and cookies… two things that are not helping my waist-line. What concerns me about this parallel is the failure rate of New Years resolutions. Interestingly, 64% are successful for a month (so only 36% have failed by that point), but 80% have failed by the 2nd week of February. 4 1/2 weeks in January plus at most 2 weeks in February… that’s 6 1/2 weeks, which is the length of Lent.

While I don’t have exacting data, the New Years data suggests the majority of Lenten resolutions will have failed before the end of Lent as well, assuming similar failure rates. Although some suggest that the accountability of the faith community as well as the fixed timeline (compared to a New Years resolution that generally is meant to be a life-long change) make it so that Lenten resolutions are more successful than New Years resolutions.

But I think there’s something else that can be different about Lent and indeed about any Christian resolution for change… forgiveness and renewed resolution. There’s something about a New Years resolution that make it seem like once you’ve failed, it’s time to give up… at least until next year. There’s a collective feeling of “Well, we tried. Oh well!”

Hopefully we don’t have this sort of feeling about our Lenten resolutions. If you give up chocolate and give in to temptation, the right answer is to say a prayer asking God for forgiveness and then re-doubling your efforts. This seems more in line with our cherished beliefs about Gods’ forgiveness.

We believe forgiveness and redemption is possible for everyone. While there are many that society will write off as being irredeemable, as Christians we’re called to believe that anyone, no matter how big their sins, can be transformed. This is a great gift to the sinner. Without the possibility of redemption, few would turn their lives around.

This is just as true for the little sins. We can keep returning to the confessional over and over with the little things we struggle with. We’re allowed to try time and time again to overcome our temptations. So where the New Years resolution tends to have a ‘once-and-done’ feel, hopefully when it comes to our Lenten resolutions, even when we momentarily fail, hopefully we have the fortitude to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, ask God for pardon, and begin again.

May we all have that strength this Lenten season.

Printable prayer

As I mentioned in a recent post, I started praying a prayer of my own creation (not that it is all that unique in nature) to help me in regards to some of my habitual sins. I decided to create a print out that I could put around the house in the locations where I tend to fall into my habitual sins.

In case you’d like to try it, here is the print out (4 per page):

http://deaconken.org/docs/HolySpirit_over_Satan_prayer.pdf

What does “lay down one’s life” mean?

I was doing a morning Lectio Divina reflection on John Chapter 15. In it, Christ says “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life one’s friends.” (verse 13)

Of course when we read that, our first thought is generally about what Christ later did: He died on the Cross for all of His friends… US! And so I think it is only natural for us to think in these terms. But what if that’s just the first layer of the onion, a layer that could possibly be an obstacle to us growing in faith?

How often is death actually asked of us in service of others? Not very often, right? So how are we to change our day to day life to conform to that truth? If all we’re doing is spiritually preparing ourselves for the unlikely possibility that someday we may be called to die for God, it seems like we’re not really doing all that much, nor is it something we can test ourselves against to see how we’re progressing in love of God.

Luckily, I think there’s another layer below that. What if we make the word substitution of “giving” instead of “laying down”? It still fits the literal/top layer. We can give our life for our friends. That terminology is often used for someone who died for another.

Yet at the same time, giving our life can also mean that we dedicate every moment of our life to another. We speak of giving our life to our spouse or our children and by that we mean that we no longer use our days for our own benefit, but give those days of service to them.

So I think it is better if we understand this passage in two ways. The first literal way is worth keeping and valuable. But we should also see it in terms of service of God and our fellow man. We can “lay down” our life by every day making the self-less decision to serve God. We can transform our perspective from one that is selfish and mostly concerned with what is for our own good into a life that is self-less and where every day is given to the service of others.

That’s something we can work on getting better at every day. That’s something we can measure whether we’re making progress in our relationship with God. That’s something that come the end of our life we can have hope that we’ll hear the refrain we all hope to hear: “Well done, faithful servant.”

Aim high and try again

I have to admit, the last 36 hours have not been my finest. Not that anything horrible went wrong, but I succumbed to some of my bad habits that tend to torture me. What’s worse is that the last few weeks have been very good in those same areas, so the last day and a half has felt like a big step backwards.

While reflecting on how to recover from this setback a few thoughts came to mind that I thought worth sharing:

  • Most of the time, the wrong reaction to setbacks is to set our sights lower. Of course there are exceptions to this. There are times when we will we set our goals delusionally high and it ends up being an obstacle to both success and peace in our lives. But I think that’s the exception, not the rule. Generally, the right path is to aim high and be ready to work on a recovery plan if we fall short of that. I think this is something to keep in mind as we make our plans for Lent. Let’s make plans that are both semi-realistic, but also stretch us a bit. Let’s aim high.
  • Prayer is so essential to success. And not just praying, but making sure it’s good prayer. I’ve been in a very good prayer habit the last few weeks, but Wednesday morning I was a bit tired and I let myself treat it to mechanically. I said the words, but my head and my heart weren’t there as much as they should have been. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that later in the day when my temptations came calling, I wasn’t well prepared to resist them.
  • Speaking of which, here is a prayer that I made spontaneously a couple of months ago and I find it to be surprisingly effective at resisting my temptations: “Holy Spirit, give me strength and fortitude over my temptations. Protect me from Satan as I tell him – “You have *NO* power over me!” I say this prayer the instant, and I mean right away, whenever I feel tempted to something. I’m actually surprised how well it works. But when temptation came calling Wednesday afternoon I was in enough of a prayer rut that I didn’t say that prayer.
  • Finally, I am reminded that it is never God who ceases to offer us fortitude and protection, it is our weak humanity that chooses to walk away from it. God is always there. We just have to choose to tap into the graces he offers us.

So, let us aim high, be vigilant in our prayer lives, and when we fall down, let us pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again.

Weak or humble?

I love the overall message of this video:

Awesome stuff! Really great, great, great stuff!

But I must admit that I recoiled a bit at the choice of the word “weak”. I would have chosen the word “humble”. It is not weak to be an instrument of God’s grace. It is not weak to let God shine through you. In fact it takes great fortitude to say no to the pride that can get in the way of being a conduit to God for others. Humility, which seems to me is the ultimate point the bishop is getting at, actually takes a strength of character that is contrary to human nature.

But one of the things I’ve been learning to do in the last couple years is to be more humble in my assessments. And I’ve wondered in the couple days since I first watched it if perhaps I was being too judgmental. To compound that, when I re-watched it, I saw a theme in the Bishop’s homily that perhaps made weak the appropriate term.

The bishop says that “we are not looking for super-men”, and that sounds right to me. Because to be super-men is to attempt to deny our human weakness. We are not Gods. We are mankind. And for a priest to be effective, he must fully embrace his humanity. He can not let ‘En Persona Christi’ get too close to his heart so that he thinks he shares more with the divine than with the human. He must always be a man, with human weakness, not a super-man, who deludes himself into thinking he has risen above.

And so while I think humble is in many ways the right term and the term I would have used if giving a homily in this arena, I have to admit that there’s a value in thinking in terms of weakness.

Thoughts on gay priests

I just finished reading a blog post by Jennifer Fitz that is an open letter to gay priests and generally a response to an article in the New York Times where they interviewed a number of gay priests, mostly anonymously. While the post is a bit more coarse than I would write, it well sums up my thoughts, both on the NYT article and generally how we should view gay priests.

When I read that NYT article I was very frustrated by how it was framed. It acted as if priests who are attracted to other men are in some different situation than priests who are attracted to women. Or frankly, that they’re all that different from the rest of us when it comes to sexuality in the most important sense: We’re called to have restraint and mastery of our sexual desires.

Is it any easier for a married man to be respectful of his wife’s need for sexual abstinence during the 2 to 6 months surrounding the birth of a child? Does the desire for sexual intimacy magically go away during those sorts of times? Could it perhaps be harder for us married men because we have strong personal and intimate memories of the joys of sex with our spouses when we must be celibate for long periods of time?

Perhaps that last question pushes the boundaries of rhetorical truth, but the point is we’re all called to show sexual restraint and even for a married couple there are more days than not where we have to do that.

And that means that there is both good news and bad news for priests who have attractions to other men. The good news is that we get that it is difficult. We may not know what it is like to be attracted to people of the same sex, but trust us, we know what it is like to have resist sexual temptations. And so we’re pretty sympathetic. We’re ready to support you in whatever way we can, just like we’re ready to support any other priest who is struggling with temptations, sexual or otherwise.

But that bad news is that we’re not ready to offer you any sort of special privileges or indulgences either. We’re happy to have you serve us as priests, no matter what your sexual temptations are. But just as we are called to sexual restraint in our marriages, you’re called to sexual restraint in your vows to the priesthood. You don’t get a pass just because your sexual temptations are homosexual in nature. Your job is to proclaim the Gospel including Christ’s call to self-less love, not lustful desire. Our job is to hold you accountable to that same Gospel.

But here is where I’m ready to admit there’s been an issue that needs to be addressed: There’s a massive disconnect over what the term “gay” means and thus I think many people are talking past each other and misinterpreting others.

And it’s as simple as this: Does “being gay” mean you’re sexually active?

I don’t know why it has been so hard for people to admit this disconnect. It feels like in certain circles, even those with very different perspectives, there’s a desire to not admit the disconnect.

My proposal would be to not assume. Or if you must, assume that the speaker is using the term gay in a way that is most reconcilable with your perspective. Christ does call to assume the best of others, yes?

By way of example, when a priest with homosexual attractions hears someone say that the “lavender mafia” is responsible for the sexual abuse crisis, assume that what they’re saying is that it is not the homosexual attraction that is the issue, but that there’s a group of priests who are showing insufficient sexual restraint and encouraging others to do the same. Thus, this culture of encouraging illicit sex is encouraging those with temptation to either pedophilia or ephebohilia to act on their temptations. Assume that those who speak of a “gay problem” do so not to attack your ministry nor an attack on your attractions or temptations, but that there is a problem with sexually active priests.

The same goes for the inverse case, when a priest says that he is gay, people should not assume this means he is sexual active. It is merely admitting that the preponderance of their sexual attraction is towards people of the same sex.

If we could do this, get to a place where we both recognize that there have been places within the clergy that have been undermining the collective vows of celibacy and at the same time honoring celibate priests who have same-sex attraction as good and noble men, I think we could go a long way towards both addressing the sexual abuse crisis while also helping priests find peace with the Church’s attitude towards their temptations.

Unusual way we could help the poor

I’ve had a developing thought that gained clarity yesterday as I was preparing to get passports for all of my children…

The process of getting a passport looks daunting at first. The application form has *FOUR* pages of caveats and conditions. They speak in terms that are confusing and hard to understand. But once I started wading through it, it turned out to not be that bad. All I needed was to fill out a form with basic identifying info most people know by heart and have all of us (both parents and the kids) go to the appropriate post office with their birth certificates and photo ID for the parents.

Yet It took me a good hour to figure that out. It talked about all the various documents I needed, but it turned out that all of those things were satisfied by the kids birth certificates. But that was not at all clear at first. It started with precision of all the various ways one could establish each of the documentary evidence one needs to provide (and there were many). I think this was because they wanted to “make it easy” for someone who may have some of the other options, but not readily have their birth certificate.

However, in their attempt to “make it easy” they actually made it quite daunting. It was overwhelming. And I thought to myself, what if I was poor or transient? How much more overwhelming would this be at a library computer than in the comfort of my own home with a filing cabinet full of saved documents?

Government needs to find ways to make things simpler. Part of the libertarian push-back we’re seeing in society is because government has done a very poor job of keeping things as simple as possible. In this case, it should start with that simple list I mention above (birth certificate, ID, picture (if you don’t want to pay to have it taken at the PO)) and then have links for people to follow if they don’t fit the normal situation.

Or another example… when I was laid off, we had a 2 month window where we weren’t going to have health insurance. We could have paid for cobra to keep my existing insurance, but “Obamacare” (correctly called the A.C.A.) supposedly made it a lot easier and we’d likely get a government subsidy while both Wendy and I were unemployed. But actually getting it was a *nightmare* of documents and bureaucracy. I eventually acquiesced to a bureaucrat who wanted to do it the wrong way based on my reading of the relevant forms because I was sick of fighting her. But I thought to myself, this is going to come back to bite me. Sure enough, we got a $1000 fine come tax time for not doing something right.

Thus a similar thought went through my head… how is this helping the poor who can’t afford health insurance? Are they really going to be able to fight their way through this bureaucracy? What do they do when they get a fine like that for not following every step just right?

So, if we want to actually help the poor, not just pretend to help the poor, we have to make the processes for government *MUCH* simpler. Every time a middle-class white-collar family struggles with government bureaucracy we need to say, if it’s hard for a person with this many resources to do this, it’s too complicated. We are failing our poor people, the people who government is supposed to be looking out for, by having such a complicated governmental system.

Books for Lent

As I mentioned in my ‘Movies for Lent’ post, at my ‘Faithful Questions’ talk on Tuesday found myself looking like a babbling idiot. I mentioned that one of the ways we can make the most of Lent is to watch movies and read books that help us to delve into the divine. When during the Q&A portion, someone asked for a list I was only able to spit out one or two titles.

So now that I’ve redeemed myself with a good list of movies, here’s a list of books I think can be of value during Lent:

  • ‘Crossing the Threshold of Hope’ by St. Pope John Paul II: A wonderful book that was the result of an interview with the Pope. In it he repeats his oft-used refrain of “Be Not Afraid!” again and again. Sometimes when we get into Lent, we’re afraid to commit too fully to it, for fear of where that might lead. This book will help you find that courage.
  • ‘The Screwtape Letters’ by C.S. Lewis: A fictional work of a series of letters from one demon to another, Lewis manages to delve into the motivation and methods of the demonic in a way that few others have. Sometimes to confront evil, we must stare it in the eye. Lent is as good as a time as any to do that.
  • ‘Resisting Happiness’ by Matthew Kelly: While the tone of the book may be a tad bit upbeat for Lent, the message fits well with the penitential themes of Lent. Kelly wants us to transform our lives so that we can find true happiness with Christ. What better time to do that than Lent?
  • ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Conquest of Darkness’ by Warren H. Carroll: This short history book covers the conquest of Mexico by Cortez through the appearance of Our Lady to Juan Diego a mere 14 years later. Cortez and the Spaniards are often criticized and not entirely without merit. However, missing from that criticism is the grave evil that Cortez discovered when he arrived in Mexico and the heroic steps he took to put an end to human sacrifice in the New World. Similar to some of the movies suggested, this is a combination of the heroic virtue that can inspire us as well an educational read that helps us to see beyond the modern secular view of things.
  • ‘The Bones of St. Peter’ by John Evangelist Walsh: This book was sadly out of print when I first came across it, but has since been re-published in paperback. Hooray! In any case, sometimes what we most need during Lent is to connect with our roots, to know that our faith comes from an ancient and unbroken lineage. The Bones of St. Peter covers the 20th century excavation under St. Peter’s basilica as they attempted to find the bones of St. Peter that tradition said were buried under the high altar. It’s an inspiring story that will help you remember where we come from.
  • ‘Render Unto Caesar’ by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput: Continuing down the educating and challenging our faith path, this book discusses the relationship between Church and State. I think it’s an excellent work and will challenge you. Hopefully from that, along with general Lenten reflection, you’ll be emboldened to bring Christ more into the public sphere (but in the right way).

OK, those are the religious books I can recommend right off the bat. I’ve read them all and whole-heartedly recommend them. However, how could I recommend that others read books during Lent and myself ignore that advice? So, here are 3 books I hope to read between now and the end of Lent. Since I haven’t read them, I can’t yet give them my stamp of approval, but they all come highly recommended:

  • ‘Why Preach’ by Father Peter John Cameron: Fr. Cameron is best known for his work with the Magnificat publications. As a deacon who has to give a monthly homily, I want to make sure I’m doing a good job and so I frequently read articles or books on how to get better. I’m about 20 pages in so far and I’ve been surprised by the path it has taken. It is far more theological than practical thus far.
  • ‘Dark Knight of the Soul’ by St. John of the Cross: I’ve read many of the great classical works of Catholicism, but this one has yet to bubble to the top of the reading stack. A reflection on how to survive dark times, hopefully it will give me courage to delve even deeper into Lent knowing I have the tools to survive any interior darkness I might find.
  • ‘Interior Castle’ by St. Teresa of Avila: Another great classic that I’ve yet to tackle and ironically by someone so closely tied to St. John of the Cross. But the time has come to read this important work by the first woman to be named a Doctor of the Church.

Finally, here are two secular works that I think are worth reading during Lent. I’ve read both books at least 4 or 5 times. They are two of my favorites and fit well in Lent:

  • ‘Earth Abides’ by George R. Stewart: Technically a science fiction book, although it doesn’t read like one from my vantage point, it’s a story of a man’s journey after civilization is wiped out by a plague. Written in 1949 it is surprisingly timeless. It uses a ton of religious symbolism, starting with the title coming from the King James translation of the Bible (Ecclesiastes 1:4). At its root, it contemplates what the purpose of our existence is against the backdrop of a man must completely re-evaluate the purpose and value of his life after society is no more. Despite the religious title and imagery throughout, the book strikes a mostly agnostic tone, but for a person of faith, it opens up a wonderful space for contemplating this wonderful creation that God has made for us.
  • ‘The Sea Wolf’ by Jack London. I’m a big Jack London fan and I can never understand why this book is not considered his definitive work. Call of the Wild is child’s play compared to this. The book follows the journey of a rich socialite who’s swept out to sea in a ferry accident and picked up by a seal ship. There he is confronted by a captain who has embraced a completely Darwinian view of life. London remains fairly neutral to whether nobility or survival of the fittest is right, but for those of us who know where we stand, the book is a fascinating read. In some sense it is like The Screwtape Letters, but instead of the explicitly demonic, we get to see into the heart of the most troubling form of modern atheism.

So there you have it. More books than you could possibly read during Lent, particularly if you spend all your time watching the plethora of movies that I suggested.

And just as with the movies, feel free to add any additional suggestions in the comment section.

Movies for Lent

At my ‘Faithful Questions’ talk on Tuesday I mentioned that one of the ways we can make the most of Lent is to watch movies and read books that help us to delve into the divine. Later, in the Q&A portion, someone asked for a list. And I proceeded to sound like a babbling idiot only able to spit out one or two titles. So to redeem myself, here’s a list of movies I think can be of value during Lent:

  • ‘The Mission’: This is a movie about redemption set against the backdrop of conflict between the Jesuits trying to bring the natives to Christ and the powerful who want to see them exploited, in 18th century South America. One of the slave traders kills his brother in a jealousy induced rage and goes into a self-inflicted depression and isolation. The movie centers on the relationship between him as he seeks redemption and one of the lead Jesuits. A great Lenten movie.
  • ‘Pius XII: Under the Roman Sky’: During the Nazi occupation of Rome, the Pope must navigate the treacherous waters of somehow protecting the persecuted Jews without causing an even greater crackdown. The movie follows his heroic actions as he tries to find the best combination of direct confrontation and rebuke, against secretly undermining the Nazi’s efforts. It’s a little bit more subtle how this is connected to Lent, but sometimes what we need to see is heroic virtue to evaluate where we are falling short in following God.
  • ‘Bella’: The story of a man who can’t forgive himself for a life he took away and a single and struggling woman who’s recently found out she’s pregnant, and their unexpected friendship. It’s a story about the search from redemption through service and accompaniment of another who needs to know that she is loved.
  • ‘There Be Dragons’: Another movie about relationship, this time between a future Saint and a man who loses his faith in God through the Spanish Civil war. The value of this movie as a Lenten movie is similar to Pius XII, in that we see both sides of what one might choose in difficult circumstances: the heroic and the tendency towards self-preservation.
  • ‘Doubt’: The story of a nun who is the principle of a parish school who suspects, but doesn’t have proof, of sexual abuse by the pastor. While the movie itself doesn’t strike a particularly redemptive tone, I think in our current situation, spending the time to reflect on this shameful area of our Church is very important, and definitely fits the penitential spirit of Lent.
  • ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’: This might be the biggest stretch in the list, but I think it still is worth a watch during Lent. It follows the trial of an exorcist priest who is charged with a crime for the death of a young lady who was in his care. He was convinced she was possessed, but the prosecutors argued that she had a mental health issue and the priest did her great harm by dissuading her from receiving psychiatric help. Lent is a good time to reflect on what we really believe and this is a movie that exposes the difficulty of discerning when a person’s difficulties can be attributed to the demonic or instead whether mental health issues are to blame.
  • ‘A Man For All Seasons’: The story of St. Thomas More and his martyrdom. This is a bit of mix between being challenged by the heroic virtue of a saint who chooses martyrdom instead of compromising his faith, and a movie that challenges us intellectually to this about the right relationship between Church and State.
  • ‘The Passion of the Christ’: The most obvious movie for the list and thus saved for last. There couldn’t be a more Lenten movie than one about Christ’s crucifixion. The one point I would make is to make sure you watch for the specific parallels between the 14 Stations of the Cross.

In addition to movies specifically intended to have a religious theme, here are a number of more secular movies that I also think are of value. Each of them are more focused on a lesson we can learn about life. I will mention that some of these movies have some objectionable content, both sexual and violent. Particularly considering my background, I tend to be less sensitive to these sorts of things than some, and do my best to not let those scenes distract me from any overall good that can be found in the movie. I’m also more willing than some to overlook the troublesome but common morals of society that show themselves in secular movies, as long as their is something that stands out as of value among them.

So with that caveat aside, here is that list:

  • ‘The Painted Veil’: A wonderful movie about true love. It centers on a newlywed couple. Infidelity tears their young marriage apart, but then they find themselves in a difficult situation and must find their way toward forgiveness and redemption. Fair warning: It’s a tragedy, not a Hollywood ending.
  • ‘Up In The Air’: A movie about a man who has purposely chosen a life of nomadic solitude and material indulgence being challenged by a young woman who has much more interest in a traditional domestic life. While the ending is a bit muddled as I think they tried to give a Hollywood ending to what is fundamentally a tragedy, I think it is a wonderful movie about what makes life both valuable and joyful. (Caution: definitely a couple of pretty explicit sexual scenes in this one)
  • ‘Braveheart’: One of the greatest movies of all time in my opinion. I see St. John Paul II’s dual admonition to ‘Be Not Afriad’ and to cherish Freedom, in the lead character of William Wallace. This is another movie that challenges us by showing us what heroic virtue looks like. (Caution: There’s tons of violence in this one.)

(Expect to see a list of books similar to this in the next day or so.)

Finally, feel free to add any additional suggestions in the comment section.

Topics for upcoming Faithful Questions seminars

I’ve been asked in a couple of different forums what my upcoming topics for the Faithful Questions seminar will be. I put them in my slides for the previous couple talks, but I figured I should publish them separately:

  • February 19th: What is the point of Fasting?
  • March 19th: Were the Jews responsible for the death of Jesus?
  • April 23rd (delayed from 3rd to 4th Tuesday due to Holy Week):
    What do eggs and bunnies have to do with the Resurrection?
  • May 21st: TBD – perhaps general Q&A, ideally with pre-submitted questions

I will then take June, July and August off and re-start in September.