Did I ever tell you about that one time I faced a group of angry protesters?

This would have been back during the fight over the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare, which my organization supported on policy grounds. It was summer, and we were, like the foolishly idealistic policy wonks that we were, trying to educate our members about what was and wasn’t in this significant piece of health care legislation, explain the impact on the 50+ population we represented, and answer any questions or concerns that they had.

This was when the Tea Party really took off.

I was not the primary front man for most of these excursions, something for which I still experience some guilt. But there was one that was set up by a volunteer leader of ours in Volusia County that I was going to lead. He had done a great job of lining up a meeting space and because it was limited in size (and we had heard by this point that these sorts of events were drawing a bit of a crowd), we limited to members who made a reservation, and we had a full house. Some were pro-ACA, some were anti-Obamacare, some just had questions. So I hear. I never got in there.

So as we were setting up for the event, one of the community center’s staff members said, Hey, I think you should know there are some protesters outside with signs yelling stuff.

Let me not oversell this. They were about 20 in number, and they were angry, but they weren’t threatening anybody or calling anyone names or anything like that. But they were standing in the driveway of our building with signs yelling at cars coming in, and I though, man, that seems like a bad first impression for our members and any press who might be covering this thing.

So I checked with the center to see if they had a separate room where I could hold a listening session with them, just like the full-house one with our members. They really didn’t have another meeting room, but they had a little computer lab that would fit about that many people. That’ll have to do, I thought.

I commissioned my volunteer, who is still going strong in his 80s and once ran a medical school, to lead the main session and just have someone take notes of any questions we needed to get back to people on, and I invited the group of protesters inside to do a listening session with me. I explained (as they had already heard) that the main session was full, but I said they’d have my full attention this way, and look, it’s summer in Volusia County, it’s hot. Wouldn’t you rather sit in air conditioning and stand outside while everyone else is inside a room where they can’t even see you?

Thank God for Florida’s humid heat.

So once the group got settled and I set up at the “front” of the room (the farthest from the door), I said, look, we can do this whatever way works best for you, but here’s my suggestion. I was going to talk through with that other group why our organization has the position we do on this thing and then take any questions or concerns they had and do my best to answer them while also taking note so I could let the folks in DC know what people were asking about and what they were worried about. Would something like that work? They clearly hadn’t scenario planned this, but they couldn’t figure out was unfair or sneak about it, so they said, sure, provided I guarantee I’d listen and that I’d report everything they said. I promised I would. Plus, they were between me and the door, so I wasn’t going anywhere.

Our session was longer than the other group’s session; I’d have to go back to my notes at the time. One thing I learned quick, which was the only really sneaky thing I did, was that I needed someone else to take notes on their questions or concerns so I could focus on listening to them and responding while knowing someone else would capture what they wanted to be sure I reported back. They understood that, and I pointed out that they thereby controlled the record for the event that I’d report back. So I deputized one of their unofficial leaders as the reporter, which she liked, they liked, and I liked too…because she was the one who kept interrupting me. Once she had to take notes, it didn’t quiet her down all the way, but it did slow her down enough that I could at least finish a thought. So I guess that was sneaky.

So I explained what we liked about the bill and what we thought it would do and what we didn’t think it would do and what we didn’t like about it. I explained why we thought the pros outweighed the cons. But mostly, I listened. I made sure I understood their concern, made sure they understood that I understood, made sure our reporter understood too, and I gave my best answer as someone who knew the bill pretty well.

I won’t say it was fun, per se. But it was kind of a game, as they would try to get themselves mad about some part or another only to defuse them with calmness, kindness, patience, and a willingness to listen. By the end, the group that had come in convinced I was the mouthpiece of an organization they hated as evil and corrupt had moved to a point where they thought we were…well, wrong, and maybe stupid and naive, and maybe still secretly corrupt a little, but generally nice people.

I’m not saying that would work today. But it could. And when I hear that there is a Fred Rogers movie out, and that people are angrily protesting someone leaving a screening of that movie, this story somehow popped back in my head. I think none of us who were there in the summer of the ACA would ever imagine that those would be anything but a low water mark of civility in American discourse. We were wrong.

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My friend in Uganda

Patrick

Meet my friend Patrick. Before I tell you the crazy story of how The Book of Mormon, the Catholic Church, Bob Goff and Facebook converged to allow us to meet, and before I tell you how he presented some fundamental challenges to who I claim to be, you ought to meet him.

Patrick lives in Nansana, a village in Wakiso, a region outside Kampala, in Uganda. He works at Nansana Community Primary School, which cares for and educates and encourages kids whose parents can’t take care of them or whose parents have died.

The recurring theme in talking about these kids is “their parents lost hope.” Hope they could get them an education. Hope they could provide basic necessities. Hope they could offer them a life. Nansana Community Primary School is the last hope for a bunch of kids in a poor area of a poor country that has been through a lot. Here’s a glimpse of what they offer:

These are from their morning parade.

This is not.

Patrick knows how important Nansana Community Primary School is because he sees what shape the kids are in when their parents drop them off. He hears their hopelessness. And he helps get the kids food, clothes, medical attention and education.

They seem to like him.

But there’s another reason Patrick knows the value of Nansana Community Primary School. Patrick was one of six kids with no father and a mother who did the best she could. Nansana was her last hope for Patrick so she brought him there. When he graduated the primary and then the secondary school, he stayed around to help. As he told me:

Yes jeff thats my vision i every day request God to give me courage and help all kids that need help because i my self i was just helped,but if i wasnt helped i wouldnt have been what iam jeff

His hero, if I can say it, is Mr. Segawa Ephraim.

Mr. Segawa, as Patrick calls him, is the founder of the school and Patrick’s mentor. He is a father figure and inspiration for the kids and the Americans who have supported his work recognize his character and service. Here’s the school website, if you want to see more. The needs are ever before Mr. Segawa and Patrick. They need $310 for a water filter so the kids can drink safe water, because right now they drink water collected from the rain and pulled straight from this cistern:

Patrick pulling water from the cistern to be boiled for use.

They need money for food and medicine and school supplies, including to pay for the fees the government charges for their tests. The hundreds they care for are a drop in the bucket of need. They’d really appreciate any support we can offer. Here’s the page to donate  If you are more comfortable donating to a US Charity, Mr. Segawa has a relationship with Heart For People. You can donate to them via PayPal and the money will get to the school. Every little bit helps.

How I met Patrick

So, it’s kind of a crazy story, how I met Patrick.

I was in New York with my family for an epic Broadway trip, and the view out our hotel window was a church, St. Malachy’s, that’s known as the Actor’s Chapel. On the streetlight in front of the Church is a banner for the Broadway play The Book of Mormon, which plays across the street from the church. My family and I liked the clean songs we heard from The Book of Mormon, enough to research the show before we went to New York. It turns out a lot of the songs are not so clean. It’s a very profane sendup of the Mormon religion. And it’s set in Uganda.

We joked that it is convenient that there’s a church across from the theater, so you could go to Confession straight from seeing the show. We didn’t, but we did go to mass at St. Malachy’s several times, including Sunday, June 3. It’s the feast of Corpus Christi, but normally June 3 is known as the day the church celebrates St. Charles Lawanga and companions. They are 19th century martyrs, the only ones I know that the Catholic Church honors from Uganda.

We were flying home on Monday the 4th and I was reading. I had two books, one, Everybody, Always, by Bob Goff, I was reading a chapter a week and another one I was trying to finish. But on the flight, something told me to finish Everybody, Always, which is a wonderful collection of funny and inspiring stories from Bob Goff’s life in California. Until you get to the last five chapters or so, when it takes a turn to focus in depth on one gripping, challenging, deeply moving story. In Uganda.

So, I never thought about Uganda before, then all this.

So I posted something on Facebook:

🇺🇬

Here’s my Uganda story from the weekend. Our hotel room overlooks St. Malachy’s, which has a big Book of Mormon street sign in front of it because the theater is across from the church. I find this funny. But then:

1) Book of Mormon is set in Uganda.

2) The Saints of the day for the Sunday we were there were Charles Lawanga and companions, who were 19th century Ugandan martyrs.

3) On the plane ride home Monday, I decided not to read the book I really need to finish and read this other book instead. It’s an awesome book, Everybody, Always, and you should read it. Almost all of it is a series of short, beautiful, inspirational and funny stories. But the last 3-4 chapters are different: an actual narrative about a really moving story. And guess where it’s set?

God’s gonna have to do more than that to get me to move to Uganda. But it’s still kinda creepy.

I posted that late on June 5. On June 6, I got a Facebook friend request from someone in Uganda. Patrick. His birthday was the day I read the rest of Bob’s book. He turned 22. He’d just joined Facebook six weeks earlier to try to find people who could help the kids at his school. We had some mutual friends, so Facebook suggested me as a friend.

I know what you’re thinking

So, here’s the deal. I made a strategic decision to be pretty open in my Facebook audience. When I get a friend request, I check three things:

  1. Is it a front for a porn site or someone trying to get a date?
  2. Is it someone solely pushing their business?
  3. Is it someone who just focuses on politics?

If those are all no, I’ll accept.

Patrick passed that test. But usually if a new friend starts trying to engage me on Messenger, the deal is off. Were it not for the confluence of Uganda events, he would have lost me at “hello.” But hard on the heels of so many arrows pointing to Uganda, having a real live person reach out to me seemed…different. So I took a chance and got to know Patrick.

But he was probably a scammer, right?

I know that’s what you’re probably thinking, because that’s what I was thinking, and it’s what everyone I’ve told part of this story to has thought. So I did some due diligence. Here’s what I found:

  • I found the website for the school independently and reached out to Segawa Ephraim via the website’s email prior to Patrick mentioning him.
  • Mr. Segawa responded via the email I found on the website verifying Patrick’s story and his relationship to the school.
  • Mr. Segawa happened to be on a visit to New Jersey about the time I was in New York; he was visiting some organizations that had sponsored his work in the past.
  • I followed up with the people and organizations from the US who have supported Nansana in the past. I had a long conversation with one person, Vincent, who works with the UN, and who visited the orphanage and school Mr. Segawa runs. Vincent was so moved by what he saw that he worked to raise more than $15,000 to purchase agricultural land for Mr. Segawa and his team to grow food for the kids.
  • I had another conversation with a young man named Aaron from upstate New York who volunteered at the school ten years ago and has been back several times since. He traveled from his current home in DC to visit Mr. Segawa when he was in the US, and he attested to the remarkable work Mr. Segawa has done.
  • I connected with another person who happens to live near me, who has also visited the orphanage and schools and can vouch for the project.

So to sum up, Patrick really does work at the school, and the school is really what he presented it to be.

So why do I, and maybe you, still feel uneasy about knowing they need our help? I can’t answer that question for you, but here’s my answer.

In the US, there’s a comfortable structure for helping people who need help. You give money to an organization, and the organization vets people’s needs and provides you evidence that your gift mattered.

But in a place like Uganda, where poverty and need are high, government corruption is rampant, and social institutions are less stable, things aren’t always as easy.

So what do you do?

A few years ago I developed a personal mission statement, and I started using it as a reference point for how I spend my time and money. It’s three simple priorities: Love God, Love the People God Gives Me, Use what God Gives Me for Him. Each day I write out these headings on a piece of paper and list out what in my day will fall in these buckets. It shapes many of my decisions. And that second bucket, “the people God gives me,” is a blessedly full one with concentric circles of the people you would normally think of – family, work, friends, community. There are also some regular in-breakers – people I bump into on the street, for instance, or the other people on Facebook who send me friend requests – that God also gives me, but stay in an outer circle of my attention. But over the last couple of days, as I write out those three headings, it’s been harder and harder to say those are my mission goals, if I choose to ignore someone who, through a rapid confluence of reference points, God seems to have intentionally given me.

Still, Patrick couldn’t be much more different from me. Difference is scary; it’s written into our nature. But a few years ago I recognized that our culture overprograms us toward fear, and I started an organization called Love Not Fear, which tries to raise awareness of the way media shapes us to be fearful, guide people on how to shape their media and their time to better be able to choose love instead of fear, especially when encountering someone who is different. So how can I champion Love Not Fear while choosing fear when faced with someone who needs love?

That’s why I’m chipping in to get the school some of what they need, and why I’m asking you to do the same. What do you think?

Here’s that link to help again. And here’s the link to Heart For People. If you prefer Western Union or Moneygram, here’s the information you’ll need:

Name:SSENYONDO PATRICK
Id no:CM9603210AMHRE
City KAMPALA
Zip code:+256
Country:UGANDA

On Marriage

I posted this on Facebook, but then the whole Laurel v Yanny thing blew up, so nobody had time for this. I get it. Since then I’ve added a little (to make it, you know, even longer).

Some of you know I play a small role in the marriage preparation process at our church. I have been doing this long enough that I’ve seen a few trends; for instance, lots more couples who met online (and tend to do well on the assessment I go over).

One thing I’ve noticed lately is that younger Millennials are quick to offer suggestions to the Church about how to make the process more relevant to them. Recently, a couple suggested the Church would do a better job of attracting couples if we downplayed the whole “Christ-centric” thing.

Anyhoo, they liked the way I explained how Catholics understand marriage better than they liked the official messaging. Earlier in our conversation, I shared an abbreviated version of the line of reasoning that I posted when a favorite FB personality asked if he and his girlfriend should get married. (Incidentally, let’s agree: if you are asking your million+ FB followers whether to get married, the answer should be a hard no.) Here’s what I said there, for what it’s worth:

“Here’s another way to think about marriage: Committing to another person is an acknowledgement that you need their help to become your best self, and in return helping them become their best self is a purpose you want to take on. But just as you need each other to be your best selves, you need the support of your community of friends and family to keep you going in that commitment when things get hard (and you want your friends and family to celebrate with you when it’s not so hard). That’s what marriage is – inviting your community to join you in support of your commitment to each other. (Upon which, for some believers, you layer on the support of the divine Lover.)

***

Now, to the Church couple, I added that this is what we mean when we say our vocation is to help our spouse grow in holiness or get to heaven. (And, later, I told them the whole “Christ-centric” thing was really just truth in advertising, at least for couples seeking to get married in the Church.)

Later in our conversation, the couple asked about the Christ-centered thing: How does that play out? So I said, look, April and I don’t have it all figured out or anything, but we pray together every day, morning, evening, night. (I didn’t think to also say): And we pray for each other throughout the day. And we support each other in growing in our faith as individuals, and we center some of our time together to catching up about what that growth has looked like, so it can inspire and inform the other one, and so we can support each other in the way God is working in us individually. And (this part did come up at another point of the conversation) we set aside time for just-us to do deep dive catching up and exploring how God is working in our marriage and where he is calling us to change together.

Anyway, I am sharing because I’m surprised this isn’t common knowledge about marriage. Except when I reflect on the fact I didn’t really understand it 25+ years ago.

I had a realization after talking to another couple. The couples that are making it to the point of marriage want to know some of this stuff. They want to be prepared for marriage. They *know* that they prep for careers for years and do continuing ed, even though a crappy job is exponentially less miserable than a crappy marriage, and a phenomenal job pales in comparison to a phenomenal marriage, yet we offer little training and no CEUs for the latter. I wish I had the bandwidth to offer the little bit we’ve figured out so far. If I did, it would be to point to the thing that I almost never tell the couples I meet with, which is the point I made above about the real vocation of marriage.

On Purpose, Passion, and Privilege

One of the things that resonates in Pope Francis’ new teaching document on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate, is the understanding of holiness as a calling to be the very best version of yourself you can be, rather than trying to be a poor copy of someone else.

I was thinking over the last couple of days about passion and purpose. I posited a little while ago that there were four key elements to living well – health, security, connection and purpose. (I’ve since added a fifth, play. More on that some other day.) When I think about this sense of holiness-as-your-best-self, I think a lot about how that speaks directly to the importance of purpose.

Mind you, purpose doesn’t have to be grandiose; in fact, Francis spends a lot of time walking through how holiness shows up in the mundane everyday choices we make, underscoring the point that purpose can come from being a good spouse/parent/friend as much (and as valuably) as in some high-falutin’ role. But it does seem to me that there’s a line that runs through holiness, purpose, and what you’re passionate about, usually.

That last part, what we’re passionate about and it’s connection to purpose, is on my heart because of a couple stories of young people I’ve come across and how they illustrated how our messed up society hurts us, individually and collectively, by putting roadblocks between you and your passion and purpose that you just can’t get through. I should hasten to say that, particularly in our youth, our passions can change and evolve. As we experience more of the world, more opportunities, more of real life, we can realize that what we were passionate about as a kid no longer holds a charm. But we learn from those passions, and often there’s a mark that’s left by those stages that shapes our future. When I was young, I wanted to be a general manager for a baseball team (those are the ones who assemble the players) or a basketball coach. I was never either, but the moments of putting together a team or drawing up a strategy remain key elements of how I understand part of my purpose. And while my foray into working in sports was by most accounts a distraction or a failure, I wouldn’t trade for anything the fact that I had a chance to pursue those dreams until I put them to rest.

As a parent of a teenage daughter, I am learning a lot about musical theater. (I met my wife on the set of Pirates of Penzance, so it’s not totally foreign territory.) There are, apparently, many teenagers who are deeply passionate about musical theater; my daughter is one of them, and her theater group is her high school family. At this point, her goal is to go to college in Manhattan, break into Broadway, and be a part of the show. If she gets there, it won’t be because she is the most talented, nor the most experienced. It’ll be because she sticks it out and develops over the coming years, because by theater standards, she is a late bloomer. (But, as her dad, I will say, she’s got a shot.)

This week I watched her musical theater class do its final performances, and one of her best friends since she was 3 was also in the class. This kid, who never spoke above a whisper in preschool, turns out to have a rich, soulful voice that can move you to tears. And she loves musicals every bit as manically as my child. But when the time came to pick sophomore courses, and they each had to pick between AP Psychology and a theater elective, my kid went with the theater (with all full support; she gets plenty of psychology at the dinner table). The other kid went with the AP course, to better her chances of getting into a more prestigious college.

Our culture would say, that’s the smarter play. Better school = better job = better security. Still love theater? This improves your odds you can afford tickets. And I can’t blame anyone for making that choice; a few years ago I heard the compelling point that if you wanted to do good in the world, the best course of action is to become an investment banker, make gazillions of dollars, and invest it in social missions you want to affect. You’d have many times over the impact you could have as an underpaid staffer for one of those same non-profits. Makes sense.

But it seems to me that, maybe more than anything else, what we face as a society is a lack of purpose. Or, a lack of valuing purpose as a really important thing. As a means of bettering our collective lot. As a path to holiness.

Maybe this kid, my daughter’s friend, has a ceiling as a performer that’s much lower than I think. Maybe it’s irresponsible for her to hurt her chances of a scholarship just to be able to sing more. Maybe.

But maybe she has a voice that, with years of dedicated work, could move people to a better connection to the human experience. Maybe she could bring tears that change people’s minds and hearts with the songs she sings. And maybe, if that isn’t quite true, the pursuit of that passion might train her to follow her heart in ways that shape her as an executive or doctor or parent or friend. I wish our society factored that in before sending our brightest off to investment banker school.

The uncomfortable realization for me, here, is that the biggest difference between my daughter and her friend is privilege. For my wife and me, life has tended to work out well. We haven’t by any means sidestepped hardship or pain, but taken as a whole, it’s reasonable for us to expect that things will work out for us. And yes, that’s because we had great families who loved us and supported us.

But (I won’t speak for her) that also meant I didn’t have to focus on student debt; I worked in residence life through school, but the fact is, I was just chipping in. I got to pursue my interest in seminary without having to commit to the pastorate as a career. We didn’t have money for Dairy Queen cones in graduate school sometimes, but we didn’t have to worry about rent. If my experience had been different, I’d be much more focused on ensuring my daughter focused on a path that brought greater security than I had. That is an advantage of privilege above and beyond the fact that I didn’t ever think the police would stop me or question me because I was driving through an unusual neighborhood, walking on an unfamiliar street, or sitting in a diner or coffee shop. Had that been my reality…I would have focused more on security and less on purpose.

So what, you say? So I might have been a corporate lawyer instead of an amateur theologian, and that’s OK. And I wouldn’t have wasted all this time blogging and starting quixotic nonprofits and whatnot. We might all have been better off. Maybe pursuing your passion as a purpose is overrated, and you ought to just focus on maximizing your paycheck.

But.

I talked to another kid this week. He was working in a museum, one of those guys who isn’t quite security but is mostly there to make sure you don’t touch anything. When I asked him what his favorite piece was, he had a thoughtful answer. When I asked if he had an arts background, he said, no way. He was just working in museums to get through school and had picked up some things along the way. His passion was biology. Especially genetics. We started talking about gene editing and CRISPR, and he said, yeah, all that science fiction stuff is real now, and he wanted to be a part of it, because we aren’t focusing on the ethical questions of what should we do; only on the questions of what we can do.

He’s working his way through an AA at a good community college. He hopes to go on to a BS at a good state school. To the best of my knowledge, that state school has no real expertise in genetics or biomedical ethics.

This kid has to worry about student debt. This kid, also, not incidentally, would not get into the museums he works in without being closely followed because of how he looks. He is apparently not safe from being questioned at the local Starbucks or Waffle House just for being there. I have privileges over him, and the version of me that was his age did, too.

If you’re not convinced of the value of musical theater to a society, fine. But wouldn’t we be better off as a humanity if the people who were passionate about the ethical questions that attend to genetic editing had the freedom to pursue that passion, rather than standing around politely reminding you not to touch the sculpture? I would sleep better if guys like him had a free path to focus on those questions. And there is someone else who is passionate about those sculptures he’s there to keep me from touching. If we let him pursue his passion in the lab, and that other person pursue her passion in the museum, maybe we could all live more secure lives and make our individual paths to holiness as well. With moving music to nudge us on.

Gaudete et Exsultate

I really intended to focus on something else, and hopefully I’ll get back to it at some point, but Pope Francis went and released a new document, an apostolic exhortation on the call to holiness, and I can’t just ignore it.

An apostolic exhortation is a teaching document, which is to say it isn’t intended to introduce new doctrine for the church, but to help believers apply the tenets of the faith in the contemporary world.

One of the cool things Francis does in this document is name-drop saints – people recognized by the Catholic Church as having demonstrated what holiness can look like. I’m going to list the ones he mentions here so I can come back and research them.

Blessed Maria Gabriella Sagheddu

Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Saint John of the Cross (4)

Saint Hildegard of Bingen,

Saint Bridget,

Saint Catherine of Siena,

Saint Teresa of Avila (2)

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (2)

Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyên van Thuân

Saint Ignatius of Loyola (3)

Saint Josephine Bakhita

Saint Francis of Assisi (3)

Saint Anthony of Padua

Saint Bonaventure

Saint Augustine (2)

Saint John Chrysostom

Saint Basil the Great

Saint Thomas Aquinas (2)

Saint John Paul II (2)

Saint Vincent de Paul (2)

Saint Teresa of Calcutta (2)

Saint Benedict (2)

Saint Faustina Kowalska

Saint Thomas More,

Saint Philip Neri

Blessed Paul VI

the seven holy founders of the Order of the Servants of Mary,

the seven blessed sisters of the first monastery of the Visitation in Madrid,

the Japanese martyrs Saint Paul Miki and companions,

the Korean martyrs Saint Andrew Taegon and companions,

the South American martyrs Saint Roque González, Saint Alonso Rodríguez and companions.

the Trappists of Tibhirine, Algeria

Saint Scholastica

Saint Monica

 

And for now, I’m just going to drop my favorite quotes from Gaudete et Exsultate here so I can find them later.

My modest goal is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own
time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities. For the Lord has chosen each one of us “to be
holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph 1:4). (2)

Referring to Hebrews 12:1’s “great could of witnesses”, he says:

These witnesses may include our own mothers,
grandmothers or other loved ones (cf. 2 Tim 1:5). Their lives may not always have been perfect,
yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord. (3)

 

We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. (6)

7. I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who
raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their
families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile. In their daily perseverance I see
the holiness of the Church militant. Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbours,
those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence. We might call them “the middle class of
holiness”

 

Saint John Paul II reminded us that “the witness to Christ borne even to the shedding
of blood has become a common inheritance of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants”. (9)

 

The important thing is that each believer discern his
or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God
has placed in their hearts (cf. 1 Cor 12:7), rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not
meant for them. (11)

 

12. Within these various forms, I would stress too that the “genius of woman” is seen in feminine
styles of holiness, which are an essential means of reflecting God’s holiness in this world. Indeed,
in times when women tended to be most ignored or overlooked, the Holy Spirit raised up saints
whose attractiveness produced new spiritual vigour and important reforms in the Church.

 

We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by
bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the
consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by
loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a
living? Be holy by labouring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are
you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are
you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal
gain. (14)

 

16. This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures. Here is an example:
a woman goes shopping, she meets a neighbour and they begin to speak, and the gossip starts.
But she says in her heart: “No, I will not speak badly of anyone”. This is a step forward in holiness.
Later, at home, one of her children wants to talk to her about his hopes and dreams, and even
though she is tired, she sits down and listens with patience and love. That is another sacrifice that
brings holiness. Later she experiences some anxiety, but recalling the love of the Virgin Mary, she
takes her rosary and prays with faith. Yet another path of holiness. Later still, she goes out onto
the street, encounters a poor person and stops to say a kind word to him. One more step.

 

Every saint is a message which the Holy Spirit
takes from the riches of Jesus Christ and gives to his people. (21)

 

You too need to see the entirety of your life as a
mission. Try to do so by listening to God in prayer and recognizing the signs that he gives you.
Always ask the Spirit what Jesus expects from you at every moment of your life and in every
decision you must make, so as to discern its place in the mission you have received. Allow the
Spirit to forge in you the personal mystery that can reflect Jesus Christ in today’s world. (23)

 

24. May you come to realize what that word is, the message of Jesus that God wants to speak to
the world by your life. Let yourself be transformed. Let yourself be renewed by the Spirit, so that
this can happen, lest you fail in your precious mission. The Lord will bring it to fulfilment despite
your mistakes and missteps, provided that you do not abandon the path of love but remain ever
open to his supernatural grace, which purifies and enlightens.

 

26. It is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet
while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service. Everything can be accepted and
integrated into our life in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness. We are called to be
contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously
carrying out our proper mission.
27. Could the Holy Spirit urge us to carry out a mission and then ask us to abandon it, or not fully
engage in it, so as to preserve our inner peace? Yet there are times when we are tempted to
relegate pastoral engagement or commitment in the world to second place, as if these were
“distractions” along the path to growth in holiness and interior peace. We can forget that “life does
not have a mission, but is a mission”.[27]
28. Needless to say, anything done out of anxiety, pride or the need to impress others will not lead
to holiness.

29. This does not mean ignoring the need for moments of quiet, solitude and silence before God.
Quite the contrary. The presence of constantly new gadgets, the excitement of travel and an
endless array of consumer goods at times leave no room for God’s voice to be heard. We are
overwhelmed by words, by superficial pleasures and by an increasing din, filled not by joy but
rather by the discontent of those whose lives have lost meaning. How can we fail to realize the
need to stop this rat race and to recover the personal space needed to carry on a heartfelt
dialogue with God? Finding that space may prove painful but it is always fruitful. Sooner or later,
we have to face our true selves and let the Lord enter. This may not happen unless “we see
ourselves staring into the abyss of a frightful temptation, or have the dizzying sensation of
standing on the precipice of utter despair, or find ourselves completely alone and abandoned”.[28]
In such situations, we find the deepest motivation for living fully our commitment to our work.
30. The same distractions that are omnipresent in today’s world also make us tend to absolutize
our free time, so that we can give ourselves over completely to the devices that provide us with
entertainment or ephemeral pleasures.[29] As a result, we come to resent our mission, our
commitment grows slack, and our generous and ready spirit of service begins to flag. This
denatures our spiritual experience. Can any spiritual fervour be sound when it dwells alongside
sloth in evangelization or in service to others?
31. We need a spirit of holiness capable of filling both our solitude and our service, our personal
life and our evangelizing efforts, so that every moment can be an expression of self-sacrificing
love in the Lord’s eyes. In this way, every minute of our lives can be a step along the path to
growth in holiness.

 

32. Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the
contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be
faithful to your deepest self.

 

34. Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God.
Do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit. Holiness does not make you less
human, since it is an encounter between your weakness and the power of God’s grace. For in the
words of León Bloy, when all is said and done, “the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a
saint”.

 

37. Thanks be to God, throughout the history of the Church it has always been clear that a
person’s perfection is measured not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the
depth of their charity.

 

41. When somebody has an answer for every question, it is a sign that they are not on the right
road. They may well be false prophets, who use religion for their own purposes, to promote their
own psychological or intellectual theories. God infinitely transcends us; he is full of surprises. We
are not the ones to determine when and how we will encounter him; the exact times and places of
that encounter are not up to us. Someone who wants everything to be clear and sure presumes to
control God’s transcendence.
42. Nor can we claim to say where God is not, because God is mysteriously present in the life of
every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed
certainties. Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it
devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there.

 

50. Ultimately, the lack of a heartfelt and prayerful acknowledgment of our limitations prevents
grace from working more effectively within us, for no room is left for bringing about the potential
good that is part of a sincere and genuine journey of growth.

 

57. Still, some Christians insist on taking another path, that of justification by their own efforts, the
worship of the human will and their own abilities. The result is a self-centred and elitist
complacency, bereft of true love. This finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected
ways of thinking and acting: an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political
advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about
the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help
and personal fulfilment. Some Christians spend their time and energy on these things, rather than
letting themselves be led by the Spirit in the way of love, rather than being passionate about
communicating the beauty and the joy of the Gospel and seeking out the lost among the immense
crowds that thirst for Christ.

58. Not infrequently, contrary to the promptings of the Spirit, the life of the Church can become a
museum piece or the possession of a select few. This can occur when some groups of Christians
give excessive importance to certain rules, customs or ways of acting. The Gospel then tends to
be reduced and constricted, deprived of its simplicity, allure and savour. This may well be a subtle
form of pelagianism, for it appears to subject the life of grace to certain human structures. It can
affect groups, movements and communities, and it explains why so often they begin with an
intense life in the Spirit, only to end up fossilized… or corrupt.

 

61. In other words, amid the thicket of precepts and prescriptions, Jesus clears a way to seeing
two faces, that of the Father and that of our brother. He does not give us two more formulas or two
more commands. He gives us two faces, or better yet, one alone: the face of God reflected in so
many other faces. For in every one of our brothers and sisters, especially the least, the most vulnerable, the defenceless and those in need, God’s very image is found. Indeed, with the scraps
of this frail humanity, the Lord will shape his final work of art. For “what endures, what has value in
life, what riches do not disappear? Surely these two: the Lord and our neighbour. These two riches do not disappear!”

 

89. It is not easy to “make” this evangelical peace, which excludes no one but embraces even
those who are a bit odd, troublesome or difficult, demanding, different, beaten down by life or
simply uninterested. It is hard work; it calls for great openness of mind and heart, since it is not
about creating “a consensus on paper or a transient peace for a contented minority”,[75] or a
project “by a few for the few”.[76] Nor can it attempt to ignore or disregard conflict; instead, it must
“face conflict head on, resolve it and make it a link in the chain of a new process”.[77] We need to
be artisans of peace, for building peace is a craft that demands serenity, creativity, sensitivity and
skill.

 

98. If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night, I can view him or her as an
annoyance, an idler, an obstacle in my path, a troubling sight, a problem for politicians to sort out,
or even a piece of refuse cluttering a public space. Or I can respond with faith and charity, and see
in this person a human being with a dignity identical to my own, a creature infinitely loved by the
Father, an image of God, a brother or sister redeemed by Jesus Christ. That is what it is to be a
Christian! Can holiness somehow be understood apart from this lively recognition of the dignity of each human being?

 

Our defence of the innocent unborn,
for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life,
which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of
development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute,
the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert
euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.[84]
We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel,
spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar,
living their entire lives in abject poverty. (101)

 

102. We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the
situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue
compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a
thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the
shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children.

 

115. Christians too can be caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet and the
various forums of digital communication. Even in Catholic media, limits can be overstepped,
defamation and slander can become commonplace, and all ethical standards and respect for the
good name of others can be abandoned. The result is a dangerous dichotomy, since things can be
said there that would be unacceptable in public discourse, and people look to compensate for their
own discontent by lashing out at others. It is striking that at times, in claiming to uphold the other
commandments, they completely ignore the eighth, which forbids bearing false witness or lying,
and ruthlessly vilify others. Here we see how the unguarded tongue, set on fire by hell, sets all
things ablaze (cf. Jas 3:6).

 

117. It is not good when we look down on others like heartless judges, lording it over them and
always trying to teach them lessons. That is itself a subtle form of violence.[95] Saint John of the
Cross proposed a different path: “Always prefer to be taught by all, rather than to desire teaching
even the least of all”.[96] And he added advice on how to keep the devil at bay: “Rejoice in the
good of others as if it were your own, and desire that they be given precedence over you in all
things; this you should do wholeheartedly. You will thereby overcome evil with good, banish the
devil, and possess a happy heart. Try to practise this all the more with those who least attract you.
Realize that if you do not train yourself in this way, you will not attain real charity or make any
progress in it”.[97]

 

144. Let us not forget that Jesus asked his disciples to pay attention to details.
The little detail that wine was running out at a party.
The little detail that one sheep was missing.
The little detail of noticing the widow who offered her two small coins.
The little detail of having spare oil for the lamps, should the bridegroom delay.
The little detail of asking the disciples how many loaves of bread they had.
The little detail of having a fire burning and a fish cooking as he waited for the disciples at
daybreak.
145. A community that cherishes the little details of love,[107] whose members care for one
another and create an open and evangelizing environment, is a place where the risen Lord is
present, sanctifying it in accordance with the Father’s plan.

 

167. The gift of discernment has become all the more necessary today, since contemporary life
offers immense possibilities for action and distraction, and the world presents all of them as valid
and good. All of us, but especially the young, are immersed in a culture of zapping. We can
navigate simultaneously on two or more screens and interact at the same time with two or three
virtual scenarios. Without the wisdom of discernment, we can easily become prey to every passing trend.

 

 

Why I am a horrible evangelist

One of my Lenten things, one I actually did, was read through Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life again, for the first time in several years. Since I use his 5-fold framework for the Christian life – worship, community, discipleship, service, witness – as an examination of conscience on an ongoing basis, it wasn’t surprising, but his, well, evangelical point that the Christian life should be centered around the Great Commandments (Love God and neighbor) and the Great Commission (go into all the world, preaching the gospel and baptizing) came out strong in my reading this time. Mostly because, while I am working on the former, I am horrible at the latter.

As if to prove the point, a friend of mine who is a professed atheist but who gets dragged to church (long story) posted this:

An Early Thought for Sunday: Faith is weird. SRSLY. It’s weird. As The Holy Bible explains it, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of thing unseen.”

My faith in science fits this description perfectly, but I would add: Test it, test it, and then test it again. And when you’re done doing that, test it again.

An absolutely crucial element of my faith is bold, unapologetic, doubt.

Doubt. I call bullshit.

My faith in science makes me hammer against it with questions science cannot answer. Science asks. It challenges. And challenges. It doesn’t worship. Faith does.

The fact that my first reaction is “I love this” – the authenticity of his faith claim, the frank assessment of his view of Christianity, the challenge of doubt – probably can be admitted into evidence in the case against me as an evangelist. I mean, the really good evangelists are great counterpunchers who would be already prepping their responses before they finish the first sentence of his post. Not me.

First of all, he’s right. Not only that, he’s not the first to make the point. Lookit, St. Paul writes at the beginning of I Corinthians, one of the oldest books of the New Testament, that we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (I Cor 1:23). Weird, in other words. SRSLY.

So, if I were a half-decent evangelist, I would point to the arguments of St. Thomas Aquinas, who built on philosophical principles to argue for God’s existence at the beginning of his Summa Theologica by pointing to the sheer orderliness of creation as an argument for a creator. Or I would cite the astrophysicists and microbiologists who started out as atheists but realized that what the comic improbability of what they studied with the tools of science led them to a reasoning toward an ordering force. Or throw Lee Strobel’s Case for Christ out there as an example of an atheist journalist who was flipped by his own research. Or I would point to the seeming universality of a moral code, even one we flaunt, as a sign of a natural law. Or that we see cross-cultural examples of heroic self-sacrifice, flying in the face of natural instincts of self-preservation. Or the unfailing existence of laughter, joy, art and beauty as signs that we were made to be more than efficient Darwinist survivors.

But, honestly, I’m not interested in making those cases. It’s not that I’m lazy (though I am). It’s that the God who I seek to center my life around isn’t an impersonal force that philsophical arguments can get me to.

Ultimately, I’m a lousy evangelist because I’m not faithful, I’m not a believer, in the sense that agnostics and atheists are operating in the question. In the West we think of belief as a matter of the intellect, as the will accepting tenets of who God is and what that enjoins upon us. But that’s not what it is, at least for me.

Faith is about the heart, not the head, first. It’s about being in a loving relationship, not a cognitive acknowledgement.

The best I can do as a comparison is to say, I love my wife. Intellectually, I want to understand her as best I can, to know her as well as I can, to figure out how best to serve her, to be sure I understand what she’s saying to me. If you want a discussion about whether or not she exists? Sorry. If you want to hammer me with questions about whether I can prove she is real? That’s a bullshit conversation that’s a waste of my time as I pursue loving her to my fullest. Not interested in the conversation. I’m just going to focus on loving her.

Same thing about God.

Now, before you go Aww, that’s so sweet, stop it. What I just said there is a horrible thing for a Christian who is called to spread the Gospel. Because I’m basically saying to my friends who haven’t already had a loving encounter with God, Good luck to you. That’s awful. I should work harder at helping you meet this God that I say that I know and love.

But the learning about, for me, comes after the encounter, not before, and I can’t manufacture that encounter for you. I could have learned every possible thing about my now-wife, without meeting her, and it wouldn’t have made me love her. I can tell you a lot about this God, but about really doesn’t do the trick. All I can do is ask God to go meet you where you are, and, I’ll be honest, God doesn’t do a lot of things I ask.

Incidentally, my favorite professor in seminary, a New Testament scholar of no relation named Luke Johnson, made a sorta similar argument about the origins of the Gospels.

Today, we get caught up in whether the Bible is historically and scientifically accurate as if the accuracy by modern standards proves its worth. But Dr. Johnson’s belief was that the central moment of Christianity was the Resurrection, which lay chronologically between the life of Jesus and the founding of the “religion”. The earliest ones to encounter the resurrected Jesus were dumb-founded – they had an experience of a risen Jesus that was strong enough that they all died horrible deaths as martyrs rather than renounce that core experience. But they really didn’t know what the heck happened in that experience, and so they used the language they had – not just the actual language, but the stories and archetypes of their culture – to try to make sense of what they had lived.

So the virgin birth, the prophecies, the allusions to the Jewish Messiah, the exorcisms and healings? Yes, there were contemporary parallels to all of these in the literature of the day. That was the authors’ point, to Johnson – take all that those roles and images applied to a slew of now-forgotten contemporary heroes, and Jesus was all that and a bag of chips. If they could have found other stories of divinity conjoined with humanity, they would have used those too. Not to try to sell someone on a concept that was, well, seriously weird. But to try to testify who it was that they experienced after Jesus died a gruesome death, who it was they loved so much that they followed him down that same road. Experience first, about-ing later.

Sorry. I really do wish I was a better evangelist. If I find a good one, I’ll send her or him your way. If I ever get the knack, I’ll circle back to this. (Not that you wanted or asked for one.) But Happy Easter nonetheless, whether it comes wit a life-changing experience or just nightmarish parking in the church lot and some milk chocolate bunnies.

The Four Essential Elements of Successful Living

Last year, I was asked by a group to come talk about healthy living. (Obviously, they did this sight unseen.) As I tried to gin up a talk about this, I stumbled back upon a favorite framework, the Power 9 pulled by Dan Buettner and his colleagues from the Blue Zones study. It worked well with the group, even though the Blue Zones are identified as places where people are significantly more likely to live to 100, and the group were 20-somethings. That underscored for me that they are pretty universal.

But something told me they were more and less than they needed to be. So I tried to boil them down, and I ended up with four essential elements of successful living: Health, Security, Connection, and Purpose.

Blue Zones has a rap for just focusing on health, but as I read it, the study actually goes 3-for-4, especially as it’s implemented in the US as a designation for communities that aspire to be great places. Yes, the focus is on physical health: diet (plant slant, hari hachi bu, wine at 5), exercise (move naturally), rest (sorta – they actually could do more about this, but “down shift” makes the cut). But they also get connection (right tribe, belong, family first). And purpose is its own one of the 9. So it misses on security.

But let me flesh out what I’m using for my four, because I’ve added a little around the edges:

  • Health
    • Nutrition (plant slant, hari hachi bu, hydration)
    • Exercise (cardio, strength, flexibility)
    • Rest (sleep, play, reflection/meditation/prayer/worship)
  • Security
    • Physical (from the elements, from violence)
    • Emotional (protection from harmful levels of anxiety about present or future conditions)
  • Connection
    • Close friends and circles of mutual care
    • Casual connections – face-to-face daily interactions
  • Purpose
    • Meaningful work (paid or informal)
    • Legacy (contributing to a better future)

These are the things, I will posit, that we all need to thrive. We don’t need them all, all the time – anyone who has pulled an all-nighter to get an important project finished or to spend time with someone beloved can attest to that – but over the long run, we need all of these to be present at some level for us to live well.

And here in the US, our systems and our culture our failing us because they make these elements unduly difficult to achieve for most people. The nature of work is such that it too seldom diminishes help, provides insufficient emotional (and sometimes physical) security, hurts some of our most important connections, and does not feed a sense of purpose. That’s not true for everyone, of course. But it seems to be true for a growing number of people.

So, what to do? Change comes at the legal, systemic and cultural levels. Changing laws is hard, but is simple when compared to the others. Unwinding systems of, say, racism or classism, takes not only changing laws but changing economic incentives. Changing culture – what we as a collective body of people value – is even more complicated and difficult.

We get caught up in changing laws. That’s probably because it’s a competitive battle of interests that is easy to understand in the context of our tribal nature and our modern competitiveness. Laws change when “we” triumph over “them” (or vice versatile). But when we change laws, we really have only begun, and if we don’t recognize that, we are doomed to fight an eternal war over whatever issue it is we’ve picked. To bring true change, we need to replace the systems that made the laws we changed make sense, and we need to change the cultural values that celebrated the outcomes of that unjust system based on those unjust laws. Even beyond the changing of laws, those changes require the changing of hearts, which is almost always slow work.

If what we have in American society is not bringing most people what they need to thrive, what arrangement can do better? I don’t think “What the hell do you have to lose?” is a compelling argument. We need to find a better place to go before we decide to leave where we are.

I don’t have a certain answer, but I want to flesh out a hypothesis. I’m going to work from an assumption that may or may not be right; if it’s wrong, perhaps that discovery can point us to something better. My hypothesis will be that two principles, well applied, can get us to a better outcome. One is solidarity. The other is subsidiarity.

By solidarity, I mean the essential recognition that we all are worthy of dignity and we all belong to each other. Those of us who are advantaged in each moment are called to recognize this true equality of dignity and value in those who are disadvantaged in this and every moment.

By subsidiarity, I mean the theory that the decisions that communicate the most dignity are the most personal ones, those that are made closest to the subject. This goes beyond what Americans know as federalism (the idea that government is better at the state level than the federal one) and even beyond government alone to apply to all institutions. All things considered, the smaller, the better. The family should provide what it can provide. Local institutions – neighbors, communities of membership, local collectives, should support the family. Local governments should support those local institutions. And so on.

I’m going to work on this hypothesis for a while and see where it takes us. Specifically, let’s see if it can deliver a better model for empowering health, security, connection and purpose than what we have today.