Monday, March 11, 2013

I Wouldn't Eat That If I Were You


Good stories are worth retelling. Just like a delicious recipe, a story once shared becomes property of the cook. We tweak it: add a pinch of this, delete the unsavory bits and let it simmer to suit our individual palates. I have swiped a few of each in my day. Not intentionally, I always preface the story with “I heard this . . .”, but over the years the prologue losses its vigor and the story becomes mine. Like a good recipe, the cook gets the credit.

Stories with conspiracy theories circulate rapidly. They are junk food for the imagination, full of white sugar, carbs and immediate gratification. Conspiracy theories spark the imagination and have the added bonus of ending with cliff-hangers. They’re great ice breakers; conversations bloom in their wake. They are easy to cook up because they require no facts; theories can’t be verified. Like white sugar, conspiracy theories have no substance, but the cumulative effect can do lasting damage.

Many people have approached me recently with the subtle lead in, “What do you think about the Pope resigning?” Most of them are protestant and know that I’m catholic. All of them want to share a conspiracy theory of one sort or another. Even a lovely, devout catholic friend approached me with information about “prayers” from an anonymous woman who claims to be a catholic visionary. She’s allegedly been receiving messages from the Blessed Mother for the past two years which predicted a conspiracy theory within the Vatican. According to this woman's website, even the Blessed Mother can’t resist a good story.  

All this fuss about why the Pope resigned; innocent curiosity some would assume. Or maybe we’ve just been really bored since the Da Vinci Code hit cable. My friends’ inquiries brought to mind a good story I heard once on Focus on the Family. So I am serving it up again, Kinskey style.

A father was approached by his boys one day, asking if they could see a movie rated PG-13 over the weekend. The boys were aged eleven and thirteen. They’d researched the movie thoroughly and with great enthusiasm pointed out to their dad all the redeeming aspects of the film: historical plot points which were educational and a father-son dynamic which reinforced good family values. The ending was filled with admirable role models who displayed loyalty and compassion. But, there was one really short scene that had some inappropriate behavior. Oh, and a few cuss words. The boys promised to go to the restroom during the one bad scene and cover their ears at the hint of a cuss word. They begged their father to let them go with their friends to the movie. All the other boys were going. All the other parents thought it was okay.

The father, in his wisdom, told his sons he needed to think about it and he would tell them on Friday. The boys waited expectantly for the father to return home from work that day. They hung up their coats and put their shoes in the laundry room. They started their homework. They didn’t leave any dishes from their after school snack in the sink and helped their mom set the table without being asked. They really wanted to go to this movie. Luckily their dad came home early from work with a foil pan in his hand. He sat down at the dining room table and placed the pan before him; brownies – could the day get any better? Their father smiled patiently through the boy’s chorus of “Can we go Dad? Please, can we go”?

“First, I want to tell you about these brownies boys. A friend of mine at work made them. He prides himself on using only the best ingredients. He uses fresh milk and eggs and real butter from Mr. Jansky’s Organic Dairy. He orders in the best milk chocolate and grinds his own flour. All the ingredients are the finest available. There is just one little surprise in these brownies -- he puts one scoop of dog poop in each batch. It’s an old family tradition; he swears it gives them a little punch. It’s just one scoop; all the other ingredients are great. So boys, what do you say, dig in.”

This story never fails to make its point. For Catholics, conspiracy theories about the Pope are nothing more than slander and gossip about our father. The spiritual father God has chosen to help us find our path to heaven. Why they are so much more fun to take in than the truth shouldn’t be a mystery to anyone.  

I’m becoming more diligent about reading labels and testing ingredients before I indulge, no matter how satisfying something appears on the surface. Healthy food, like the truth of scripture or the witness of a faith filled life, often isn’t as instantly gratifying as a Snickers Bar with a side helping of slander and gossip. The epistle of James is reinforcing the practice of “being quick to hear and slow to speak” James 1. We can’t navigate the crap in our path if we aren’t aware of it, but it is equally important we don’t spread it around by traipsing through it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Considering Joy


 Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let endurance have its perfect result, that you will be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4) It sure sounds good on paper. When I consider potential trials, or better yet, someone else’s trials, it makes perfect sense.  I understand the concept of perfection by fire. Still, after all these years, I am not adept at standing on hot coals.

            I’ve been mulling this verse over since my early days as a Christian. Three decades later I’m still striving to come to terms with the consideration of joy. My first reaction to trials and suffering is generally panic; followed by anger, sorrow, heartfelt bouts of whining intertwined with stoic attempts to sacrificially “offer it up” - not always in that order. I came to the conclusion early on that the joy was something to wait for; something that would appear after the trial was finished. Joy was the fruit of hindsight, the knowledge that even though I’d been miserable, I was changed by the experience for the better. That has proven true for me: through suffering and loss I’ve grown in compassion and come to trust more intimately in the Lord. I no longer fear trials with such consuming intensity; despite my aversion to them, I trust that God uses all the things for good. Trials have a purpose and are a catalyst on my journey to heaven. So I thought I understood it, this consideration of joy; if I can tough out this misery without losing my faith and falling into serious sin I will eventually have joy down the road.

            Apparently, there is more to this joy than just “gutting it out”.

            Ironically, when all is well in life and I am joyful, I don’t give joy much consideration at all. Happiness is the status quo that our society leads us to believe we are entitled to. So in truth, I often don’t give joy more than a cursory “count my blessings” prayer addendum, unless I’m gritting my way through a trial. “ The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding(Phil 4:7) is a concept I understand conceptually, but rarely embrace. That would involve experiencing joy during my trials, during the pain, in the midst of the storm – I can’t say I’ve integrated that concept into my reality with consistency. I’m a legalist at heart, a true type A: trials are bad and they hurt – joy is good and it feels lovely – oil and vinegar. They just don’t mix.

            Sometimes, even to the best of people, God says “No”. Some trials have no foreseeable “happy ending” in sight. Whether physical or emotional, some afflictions are permanent. The longer I live the more these trials confront people I love. I pray. I try to figure out every possible alternative available and every conceivable outcome. I consult experts: scripture, doctors, holistic healers, psychologists, priests and self-help books and they lead me to the same uncertain conclusion; this trial isn’t going to end without going through the fire. People are hurting and no matter what, circumstances out of my control could throw them into upheaval anytime for any reason. There is no way to protect the ones I love from potential fallout. Fear and dread are readily available, joy must be sought out.

So once again I circle back around to the consideration of joy. Ultimately my hope is fully focused on heaven. This is a truth for all believers. But I have to trust that the truth of scripture is guiding me to perfection here - in the here and now - in the midst of my trials. Henri Nouwen, author of “Here and Now” defines joy as “the experience of knowing you are unconditionally loved and that nothing –sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death, can take that love away.” (Here and Now, Pg. 30) This is not exactly the magical “get out of this circumstance free” card I was hoping for. According to Nouwen, “My grief was the place I found my joy. Still nothing happens automatically in the spiritual life. Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it, every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and we have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, even death can take that away from us.” (Here and Now, Pg. 31)

That rings a bell. St. Paul said something along those lines in his epistle to the Romans, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-38) I guess that pretty much covers “various trials”.

I had a beautiful example recently of a family who chose joy in the midst of great suffering. Michael Feder, 49, was a father, a physician, a loving husband and active member of his church community. He coached soccer, climbed mountains, and founded a charity in Uganda to bring shelter, provisions and medical care to villages in need. Two years ago he learned he had a brain tumor; the kind of brain tumor that needs a miracle.  Mike, Joyce and their three children had a deep, well lived, love for the Lord. They embraced early on the idea that our time here on earth is to prepare us for heaven. So the Feder Family continued to live well during “here and now” of Mike’s treatment; they shared their lives and this new journey with their many communities. They prayed and they worked and went to school. They continued to raise money for their mission work in Uganda and even traveled there together as a family. They climbed one more 14’er and last November, after one last brain surgery, they sent Mike home, to heaven.

Joyce and her children did not walk out of the hospital room after their final moments with Mike sobbing, in a state of despair. Joyce walked out proud, as she often did after a soccer game.

“We did it” she proclaimed “We got him to heaven”.

No one will ever say of this family that they merely endured their trials or considered joy. Even when they understood death was eminent, they chose joy. They embraced the depth of God’s love and demonstrated for all of us the peace that surpasses understanding.  I know that they are suffering, yet I also feel the perfection James encourages us to strive for in persevering through our trials.

I am praying throughout this Lenten season for the perseverance to seek Christ and the courage to choose joy.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Dispersion


But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.

James 1:5 

      More often than not I find my life has come full circle. A hallmark of “middle age”; realizing that I have traveled long and hard to move past something only to discover I am right back where I began.  Even the subject of our women’s scripture study, The Epistle of James, takes me back to my Christian roots. James verse 1:5 was the first bible verse I memorized as a new Christian in college. I can still see Pastor behind the pulpit expounding on his sermon. I was enthusiastically taking notes. Who is more in need of wisdom than a college student?  That was something I could sink my teeth into; I had an exam coming up.

     Now almost thirty years later I find myself still lacking, on my knees, seeking wisdom. If only Literature or Calculus were the extent of my worries. James addressed his epistle to his brothers in Christ who were “in dispersion”. As a group we were asked to reflect on the concept of dispersion as it relates to Christians today. It was apparent to me that Christians are certainly not unified. We are not held in a place of respect: we live in a culture dominated by values that contradict our beliefs.

     My reflection was based on dispersion as a cultural issue, the communal effects of disunity. Jeff Cavins, author of the study, related the idea that we are dispersed from our heavenly home. But Clarissa, a thoughtful and gracious member of our group, viewed it intimately. We are dispersed, she said, as a family. I saw her point immediately. Clarissa is a woman I hold in high esteem. Widowed several years ago after a life well lived farming and raising nine children, Clarissa found herself alone. She relocated from her home near Atchison, KS to our parish to be near her son and his family. There was no one left near the farm. Nine children and not one of them stayed. She left everything she’d built her life on in her twilight years and started over here.

     Clarissa’s response illuminated the effects of dispersion on the most human of levels. When we lose our bonds to our family, we lose our roots, our memorial stones, and sometimes our sense of direction. Dispersion has to do as much with spiritual allegiances as geographical locations. We can only choose our own path. Those we love may choose another. They may disperse. It is isolating to stay on course when those we love change directions. Choosing to love the Lord with all our heart and act accordingly is counter cultural and those we love may feel a strong desire to follow the culture. It isn’t a new story, but that doesn’t make the reality any less painful.

      Now I seek wisdom of another sort; the wisdom to bring unity with those I love in a culture that screams, “Disperse! Go your own way, meet your own needs, and please yourself. God loves you and He wants you to be happy. Go love yourself!”  The beauty of God’s Word is that it is just a relevant for me today as it was then. He is merciful and meets me where I am on the path. Maybe that circle is more of a spiral after all.