Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Hi. Let Me Re-Write Your Homily (again)

So, today's gospel was the one about the man who hired the guys standing around in the market place all at different times of the day, but paid each one the "regular daily wage." And the homily was basically: God is generous, and we don't get judged on a bell curve.

The second point was what really struck me as I listened to the gospel, but like always, what I drew from it was almost the opposite from what was preached. It was "You aren't John Paul II, and you aren't Mother Theresa. They had their lives and their circumstances, and you have yours. We aren't expected to be them. Just be the best you you can be."

And that's right and good. Just too conciliatory for my need today.

But what I really needed to hear was "You see Joe Schmoe over there, or Jane Schmane. Who cares about what they are doing. You might compare yourself to them and say 'Heck, I'm doing as well as they are. Everything's fine. We're all happy and comfy together, and after all, we're not perfect.' But no. God has given you gifts, and you are the only you He has made. You have an obligation to fulfill what God has given you to do, and you are never going to realize what that is by looking around at everyone else. Don't give one thought to how you compare to others, or get comfy because you feel like you fit and look like those around you. Maybe I want you to be the only orange crayon in your bin. You'll never understand how to be a perfect orange if all you look at is yellow and green."

Come to think of it, I've written a bunch of songs with this exact theme.

For some reason I crave hearing an exhortation to courage. Perhaps I want preachers to realize how much this moment in human history calls for it. Or, as St. Teresa of Avila says, how much courage it takes to pursue holiness, at any point in history.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Christianity: Just Do It

I am so exhausted right now, but sometimes I do my best writing when my brain can't rethink things a thousand times.

Which is just the sort of thing on my mind right now.

I recall clearly being a 14-year-old Lutheran. I had been confirmed, which meant I was now an adult member of the church, and in the process of being confirmed I had studied and learned all of Luther's Small Catechism, and memorized big chunks of Scripture, too. I had started Lutheran high school, where I memorized more chunks of Scripture and was busy studying the Old Testament. I had this terrible feeling that I had learned everything there was to know about God.

Now, of course, that was silly. And yet as I went on through high school I easily earned As (and even A+s) in religion class as I slammed down hundreds of memory verses and remembered obscure details from the gospels and Paul's epistles for the pop quizzes we had. I even impressed my teacher with doctrinal debates in the 11th grade class that was the reason I had wanted to go to that Lutheran school in the first place. (Well, besides that boy I had a crush on...) Even in college Religion classes (for some reason, Lutherans have a bugaboo about using the term theology) it seemed that I was never to really rise to any level of significant intellectual challenge. It was terribly frustrating.

There was one thing that niggled at me from Scripture, and that was this idea -- get that, it certainly was an idea to me at the time -- that Christianity was supposed to be experiential. Even back in my confirmation days, I had this sense that I wanted to find someone who could teach me not that what, but the how of Christianity.

My trek through the charismatic movement awakened me to experiencing God, and my introduction to Catholicism made me realize that the mind truly could be satisfied with something significant to chew on that was consistent, coherent, beautiful and true.

But there's been a certain poison that has stayed with me from my very early Christian days that always whispered that learning more about God was an intellectual pursuit.

Now, as a graduate theology student I came to see that obscure points of theology, like the precise definition of the perpetual virginity of Mary, do actually speak significantly to our lived experience. I could always intuit that kind of thing. But I also know that intellectual types have a way-over-fondness for debating fine points in such a way that makes almost everyone else stand on the outside either feeling stupid and inferior, or being put right off this whole faith in God business in the first place.

And that was me. I was "tight with God" and everyone else was stupid, or without knowing it I was poisoning their hearts against God.

Except I wasn't tight with God at all. I was tight with my love of intellectual pursuit.

There's nothing inherently wrong with being an intellectual, except that pride seems much easier to come by the smarter one is. And no one can really like a proud person, because no one is allowed access. So you also get lonely. Which you tend to hide with more pride until you can't stand it anymore.

But here's the thing that finally makes all the sense in the world: the real way we "learn" about God is not in our heads but in our lives. In experiences. In encountering Him, when He breaks through that pride and our loneliness. It is the how of living with God, and it was so important to Him that we know it that He sent His Son Jesus to walk this earth, to live, to share life with others, to suffer in the mundane, and to make of Himself a holocaust.

I had a list of theological reasons as a Lutheran why living like Jesus did was not important, not necessary, not possible, not advisable. But then there's that pesky 1 John 2:6, "Whoever claims to live in God must live as Jesus lived." This has nothing to do with earning God's favor. We have God's favor, whether we are able to accept that or not. But the point is that when we encounter God, He wants to mess with our lives. He wants to say "Watch me. I'm going to show you what to do -- and how." He is after our hearts, which is where our choices and our actions start. I always had this sense as a pre-Catholic that real Catholics had this aura about them of doing habitual good. To this day I can catch a glimpse in some people, sort of like a waft of perfume going past me, of this goodness, this imitation of Christ, this reality of Christ living through them.

Real Christianity is lived. It is a response, with one's life, to the God who comes to one.

Intellectual formation is good to the extent that it helps us live holier lives. If it makes you an obnoxious, arrogant so-and-so, it is far better to put the books away and wash feet for awhile.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Pondering God's Dark Speech

I have had one humdinger of a weekend, just by way of having a lot of activity and people going on around me. But in the midst of all that there was a completely different something going on spiritually, and maybe because of the hubbub on the one hand I need to go back and capture it again and put it down in words so that I don't lose it.

It seems God has a way of using "dark speech" at times. You know how when you are in conversation with someone, it might take them 10 or 15 seconds to complete a sentence? For those seconds, your brain is simply processing what is being said to you. The time is too short to ever feel it, but eight seconds into the sentence, you might not realize what the person is trying to say yet. Well it seems to me that in conversation with God, He can sometimes take about a year to get through a sentence. And during that time, all I can do is realize that He is saying something, without being able to grasp the entirety of His message just yet. I suppose that really indicates that the relationship of listening to Him has a priority, at that point, over even what it is He is saying. It keeps one stretching forward, straining a bit to make sure every word is captured. In experience, what I'm hearing seems to have all the value, but all of a sudden I see that the act of trying to listen is an exercise.

I am an auditory person. Being able to hear things is crucial to me. Huh. Ok. I see that God knows exactly how to draw each of us to Himself. It is crucial to me to "hear" what God is saying to me, so He takes His sweet and sometimes weird time so I am thoroughly focused on that, to strengthen my relationship with Him.

(This is why I have to go back and think this stuff through....)

The first experience of this dark speech, this intense moment of an invisible finger pointing furiously at a piece of God's normal liturgical speech, was last Friday on the feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (aka Edith Stein), a Carmelite saint. I don't have the nifty supplement to the Liturgy of the Hours for Carmelite saints, so I was praying the Office of Readings from the Common of One Martyr. Now, there is a way that this seems to work. Praying the Scriptures normally connects us with God in His action throughout salvation history (because God never speaks in a vacuum, always to people in a context). So, in entering into this dark speech, I am already present to this God of history in this normal kind of way, and I find to some degree or another, my personal place in this greater scope of salvation history. I am part of the People of God, and I'm seeing that fact. But then I read something, usually something that bears witness to God's presence in their own life (whether St. Paul or an apostle, or the spiritual writer or saint featured in the Office of Readings), and there is this resonance, a sense, and usually specific words that have a specific meaning in my own history. It's like the proverbial "flashing neon light" that a visual person might relate to. This time, it was St. Augustine's mention of a banquet: "You are seated at a great table. Observe carefully all that is set before you, for you also must prepare such a banquet." He wrote this in the context of talking about the martyr's total self-donation.

Now, I can't go saying everything that this provoked, but two of the many things that immediately came to mind (and yes, it is possible for many, many things to come to mind all at once -- it seems that is part of the experience) were told in this post and in this one. Both of these have to do with how the image of a banquet has been present in my faith journey, and they had to do with awakening to the sense of community.

Later at Mass, the dark speech continued as I heard the readings. What was impressed upon me, remembering that this was the feast of a Carmelite saint, was that part of what is drawing me into Carmel is the prayers of generations of Carmelites before me. Community. And now I am being called, not because I am so wonderful, but because I have a call to extend the same saving grace to others. I have always had the sense that all of God's action throughout my life has been in response to someone praying for me, some unknown someones. I actually had the sense that St. Teresa Benedicta's life and death itself was intercession for me. I don't know what emotional words to put to this, but it is a profound sense of a call on my life that is absolutely about self-giving -- which is of course the opposite of self-serving. Even though I realize I don't know the fullness of what this means, I still know it is very true that becoming a Carmelite is a responsibility I have to God, a call, a vocation. This is absolutely not about how well I "like" it or what kind of warm fuzzies I get. It is about what I am called to give, to God, to the Church, to the world.

Then there were the readings at Mass on Sunday. Often I read them beforehand, but this Sunday I did not. Again, I heard the Lord speaking, darkly, about my own life. This is much harder to put into words, but again these readings harkened back to another moment of "dark speech," or a sense I had from God at a Mass almost a year ago. I had the sense at that time that the Lord was warning me of a difficulty which would come (which indeed came that very day), but that I was to do nothing about it, only to wait for the Lord to bring the resolution. But I simply have not been sure how much stock to put in that sense. And mostly I haven't been sure because I've wanted to resolve it myself. Fact is, though, I haven't been able to. I've pretty well resigned myself to St. John of the Cross's counsel to forget all about it, because if God wants to act, He certainly will; it doesn't depend on "how much faith" I put in an uncertain sense of something He may or may not have been trying to promise me. In fact, to be honest, I hate getting these kinds of "senses" precisely because I don't want to have my life hang on waiting for something to happen. I know from experience that it takes my expectation off of God.

But listening to those readings, I felt myself slowly peeled, until the gospel just about split me open. I felt the Lord saying that He had seen how I had responded, the good and the bad, that He had seen my faith and received my sacrifices, and now He was telling me to be prepared. We had the longer version of the gospel, and line and after line after line pierced me -- not in a painful way, but in a penetrating way. Then came that last line: "Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” Again, that sense that God is extending to me a call and I am to be sober-minded and realize this is about what I am called to give. This is not about my entertainment or titillation or some kind of fun kick. In other words, we're not talking superficialities here, we're talking real giving and real joy.

In the next few weeks I need to write my letter of intent for taking the next step to receive my scapular as a secular Carmelite. I'm sure I'm not too far off to say that this is entailed in all this, but I also know the Lord speaks in many layers, and always very personally, and there is always an element of surprise that only makes sense in looking back over life, sometimes years or decades later, and it shows that God knows us far better than we know ourselves, and that there is nothing random about or accidental in our lives. He does these things with us because it is one way at least that He builds our loving, learning and trusting relationship with Him as a Master with His disciples.

Thank you Lord, for the grace of writing, and thank you especially for calling me. I renew again the fact that I make my life a signed blank check in your hands. Please help me to move with you to and through everything that you desire. My one request of you is that you would enable me not to be a disappointment to you.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

How to Kill Fleas

I rarely post anything on this blog that is purely practical, because I figure that's what everyone else's blog is for. But when I discover something that works and solves a problem, how can I not share.

We have three cats. These three cats have fleas. When these three cats have fleas, the humans in the house share in the flea action. And we dislike it greatly.

Nothing from the pet store or the vet seems to work very well at killing or preventing the fleas on the cats. We've tried the expensive brands, flea collars and a product made with essential oils, and the fleas have persisted.

Bathing the cats with dish soap followed by meticulous combing actually did kill off quiet a few fleas, but it increased the level of paranoia significantly in the cats.

I read the completely uncomforting statistic somewhere that if you find one flea on your cat, you probably have thirty living elsewhere in your house. Great. So I reasoned that the most pressing need was get eliminate the fleas from those other places in the house, where the cats frequented before they blessedly became so fond of our porches and backyard that they hardly ever come in any more.

Everyone's going to sell you some product to kill fleas, but what worked very well for us is something that won't cost you much of anything.

Take the reading lamp you have, the one with the bendy neck. Plug it in somewhere near where you find yourself getting bitten a lot. Aim it down to the floor, and place below it a shallow pan (11x17x1 baking sheet, for example, or a pie pan, or a 9" cake pan, etc.) filled with water and just a drop of dish soap. Leave the light on, especially at night, with no other lights on around it.

In a day or two, you will have a tidy collection of dead heat-seeking fleas. Yes, it is a gross sight to behold, but I consider that every dead flea is one that is not jumping onto my ankle for a snack. And of course you can dump and refill and count the dead as often as you like, to track how the population is dwindling.

Simple, cheap, and effective.

You are welcome.

The only downside is that today I am getting ready to make my son's birthday cake, and I realize that the pan I need is the flea trap in his room. I'm hoping maybe he won't notice.

P.S. If you've already been bitten, the best thing I've found to stop the scratching is Purification oil from Young Living.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Learning from Jesus' Grief

Check out today's gospel for a minute:

When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist,
he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.
The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns.
When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd,
his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.
When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said,
“This is a deserted place and it is already late;
dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages
and buy food for themselves.”
He said to them, “There is no need for them to go away;
give them some food yourselves.”
But they said to him,
“Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.”
Then he said, “Bring them here to me,”
and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven,
he said the blessing, broke the loaves,
and gave them to the disciples,
who in turn gave them to the crowds.
They all ate and were satisfied,
and they picked up the fragments left over–
twelve wicker baskets full.
Those who ate were about five thousand men,
not counting women and children.  (Mt. 14:13-21)

Don't let that first sentence pass you by, because the Church scoops it into the context of this miracle, which in turn prefigures the institution of the Eucharist, and hence Calvary, the source and summit of all our life.

Jesus hears of the gross injustice which has been done to His cousin John, the prophet, whose head was "sheared off like a rabbit's and given as a present to a dancing girl," to quote Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth. The news strikes Him, and He goes off by Himself.

What was He doing? Well, as the Church prays, Jesus is "like us in all things but sin." The news of the death of a holy man, a relative, a prophetic forerunner, certainly grieves Jesus. I think He goes off to process that grief, to pray, to be with His sense of being shaken. But I see something else in that besides an attempt to "get over it." He is also discerning a call, a signal from His Father.

John was to prepare the way, and suddenly He is gone. His work is done. Yes, there is a grief, but that grief is not without purpose and fruit for Jesus; it is to open up a new time, a new space in Jesus' heart.

He had His time of solitude on the boat. I wonder how long that would have been. Certainly not the months and months that I have needed after some "death of John the Baptist" type news! But right away when He steps out of that boat He sees needy people, and His heart is moved by them, and He responds to their needs with what He has, namely, power to heal. But He also responds with His power to form His disciples. He sees that the need is bigger than even what He personally can do, as one human. He sees that the disciples need to learn to cooperate in His miraculous power, and that even the companions and family members of those in the crowd who were particularly the suffering ones also need basic needs met.

This intrigues me. The loss of one person to whom Jesus was close certainly does not make Him cave in on Himself, nor does it put Him in this mode of focusing on one other individual. He is not trying to address His own human needs here. Apparently, He took care of that in His solitary boat ride and His communing with His Father.

No, instead He allows the pain to hollow out in Him a new womb of ministry. It is all laid out before Him. Now, He gives all to those He sees, He prepares His followers for their primary future ministry of feeding the multitudes with what He Himself provides, and He prefigures the handing over of His own body to death.

Lord, teach me to handle grief this way. Teach me how to be alone in that boat with you for as long as is necessary. But give me also the hope that a greater and deeper purpose lies ahead. And thank you, Lord, for my having been blessed to know John the Baptist in the first place.