Category Archives: background

Passions, Habits, and the Life in Between

Take this as a giant maybe, a question to test, a hypothesis.  In reflection tonight a few things struck me that, together, seem to encompass a lot of life.

The first point was about passions. I was observing how someone close to me is driven by a passion, an inward drive to consume something past or connect with something present or create something to come, and I reflected on how, when I was younger, my passions were targeted toward silly stuff. Not bad things, but, I mean, I did a mock draft of all seven rounds of the NFL draft in order to create in my mind who might be the original Jacksonville Jaguars. I drew up lineup options for Wake Forest’s basketball team after each class of recruits. I developed the minor league depth chart for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on lined notebook paper. I didn’t just play fantasy sports; I fantasized about running real sports teams. It was very much a passion.

There’s nothing particularly wayward about that. I think the skills I developed around planning scenarios and analyzing trends and data and looking ahead have translated into skills I use today in my vocation and work. Granted, there’s probably something worth a psychoanalyst’s time in the fact that I have a proclivity to fixate on worse-than-mediocre teams (sort of a “Bedford Falls Complex”), but otherwise that passion for sports wasn’t bad per se. Nor all that unusual.

I suspect that these sorts of passions are intended to help develop the young. The world is a lot to wrap your mind around, and developing competence requires making a lot of mistakes that, in real life with hearts and souls of others at stake, are painful if not disastrous. Having “pretend passions” like sports of Harry Potter or Game of Thrones to focus on allows the young to get some reps in for real life things, while focusing on arenas that aren’t ultimately important or often even real. I needed to learn how to think, how to learn, how to lead, and those harmless passions were a playground to develop some of those skills.

It wasn’t that I “grew out of them.” I see their limits now, yes, in ways I didn’t when I was younger and had less worldly experience. I still love the Rays, Deacons, Jaguars, to a degree, but they get less of my time and attention because they are less central to my soul. But I didn’t so much abandon them as displace them in the center of my life with more important things. I have real work to do that requires that part of myself. My marriage and family and community and other key relationships claim the center of me. So as Paul talks about putting aside childish things in (I Corinthians 13:11-12), so those passions of before have become memories, diversions for which I have less time but enduring fondness. (#Duuuuuuvvaaaaaalll) By and large, I have not rejected those passions of my younger days so much as replaced them with real reasons to be passionate.

In an odd way, the best analogy I can draw on is about pain. When I was less experienced, little things hurt a LOT. When I had my blood test to apply for a marriage certificate, I almost blacked out. (In my defense, the phlebotomist wasn’t having a great day.) But a few years later, when pancreatitis almost killed me, it gave me a different spectrum of pain. That stuff I thought really hurt before? I understood why I thought it was bad at the time, but now, in the light of experience? NBD.

And, to my shame, I find myself judging those who remain obsessed with the stuff I left behind. Have they nothing more important to occupy their center? Are they escaping some reality that is more drab than it should be? Did they never grow up, or are they just running away from the hard parts of reality?

That’s not the most charitable approach. But I wonder if one of the failures of our times is the inability of our society to help everyone recognize the very real, very important potential objects of passion in their lives, or the failure to develop the maturity to help us recognize that true life is found not in a constant escape to fantasy worlds but in the digging into the passionate things around us that sweat and bleed, or the structural barriers that prevent too many from connecting the ways they spend their time with objects worthy of their passions.

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Beyond passions, though, I am painfully aware that a lot of my life is driven not by anything that I’m passionate about, but by things I am just not attending to. A whole lot of my daily existence is driven by habits – habits are the life I live when I’m not paying attention. Too often, what I eat, what I do (or don’t do), how I talk, what I read, what I listen to, are all unconscious non-choices. They are habits. They are default modes of operation. And while some of them are positive, and some are neutral, a lot of them are negative.

If replacing passions is an exercise in awareness, changing habits is a frustrating realization of the power of UNawareness. How do I weed out the habits I only notice ex post facto? How do I quit wasting time that could have gone toward something worthwhile – a passion, or at least a wise choice (like, say, sleep)? When April and I were relatively newly married, we watched a lot of prime time TV. That was a habit, and while it left us with a shorthand vernacular of quotes from Friends, I often look back with regret on the hours we spent focused on Chandler and Joey instead of each other, or something else enduring. Parenthood weeded that out of our lives, for which I am grateful, but I’d love to claim more agency in shaping my life than the power of habits reveals.

And, that said, I recognize my good fortune. My regrettable habits eat time and add calories, but they aren’t horribly destructive. My sense, from the folks I know who have struggled with deep addiction, is that addiction isn’t a passion so much as a habit that has a venomous hold. As someone with a little OCD can be thrown in a tizzy by a disruption of the way things should go, so the addict is thrown by the lack of the substance of addiction. Unlike passion, which points us toward a better place, addiction is a habit that traps us beneath a baseline of meh-existence. I am fortunate that my habits are not so destructively powerful.

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But there’s a lot of life that isn’t fully intentional pursuit of passion or sleepwalking habit. What is that, exactly?

I started to call it consciousness, or mindfulness. Or the present. But those are all about the opportunity in-the-moment to choose between passion and habit. That’s really valuable, but there’s a dimension of life that exists beyond that intention-subconscious polarity. And I realized a beautiful thing: that “other thing” is the essential reminder that we are not alone. It is the collision of a subject with another subject. It is the real world breaking in to my world. I can walk through my day focused on my passions and weeding my habits away, until somebody else stops me and asks for directions. Or tells me they love me. Or hits me with their car. All of those interruptions are reminders that we aren’t meant to write solos but ensembles. They remind us of our need for each other, not just to achieve our individual ends, but to remind each other that we are not God. When the world throws us on our heels, it usually feels like an annoyance, or, worse, a tragedy. But it is also an awakening, as sure as the one that helped me see beyond the play-world of fantasy football, that we are meant to lift our eyes higher and see a far more mysterious and beautiful world beyond the borders we build.

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Simpleton

I think the last time I blogged about anything, I banged out some lyrics to songs that had come up in my playlist, but I only referenced one song – Derek Minor’s Change The World (with guest Hollyn). Here’s the song with lyrics for the uninitiated. (I’m not typing it out.)

It came up again tonight (I swear my playlist isn’t that short), and it had me thinking about a critique I’d heard from several different quarters lately – people I respect a great deal (as well as some others). The problems with contemporary Christian music (or CCM) are two-fold: the musical theory is too simplistic, and the theology is, too.

We all have gateways to the transcendent, and for each of us they’re different. For many, being in nature can help you feel a super-rational connection to the divine; for some it’s being in a holy shrine or place of worship. For some, it’s reading; for others, it’s writing. For some, it’s classical music; for others, it’s ocean waves.

Contemporary praise and worship music is such a gateway for me. (I must not be alone, or else it would be a non-genre.) I will be the first to admit that I’m not a musician and definitely not a music theorist. I can sing, loudly if not well. I can often carry a tune, although not with great range or sophistication. If a million chimps with a million typewriters would eventually bang out a Shakespearean sonnet, I can probably beat them to the punch of playing the melody line of a song on a piano. Musically, I am happily mediocre.

I could not care a whit about music theory. I’m attracted to voices and sounds for reasons I can’t explain. I seem to like them uncultured and unpolished: I’ll take David Crowder or NeedToBreathe over Josh Groban. (I used to have secular pop references, but I honestly haven’t listened to secular pop music in two decades or more, except for the occasional stadium rock (Seven Nation Army, say) or oldie (Brown Eyed Girl).)

So if the critique of CCM is that it’s musically simplistic, well, I can’t fight you. That’s like telling me my Italian sounds more like it’s Venetian than Neapolitan: I will just have to take your word for it and be grateful that I’m in the game at all.

But the theology, there we can talk. The critique of most CCM is that it espouses a too-cheery theology.  It’s like anti-country music; everything works out in the end. I understand that this is often so, (though not always), and I understand why that is problematic in our complex world. I have struggled in these electronic pages with the problems that a too-easy theology leads us to. I understand that the ending, in this world, is not always happy for the Christian, and in fact, if we are truly following Jesus in standing with the marginalized, we are likely to end up much closer to the original apostles (all martyred) than Joel Osteen (decidedly not martyred).

So why do I listen to such theologically stunted lyrics? Let me spin out a couple points on this:

  1. We’re not the first to go down this road. I was part of a group that, as part of it’s reflection, read Psalm 1 this week. One of the self-proclaimed least formed Christians hit the heart of things quickly: “It says the evil are like chaff that are lost in the wind. But when you think about the shooter in Las Vegas…” The cheery “everything works out in the end” theology of CCM isn’t very different from that of the psalmists. If I need to add some context, it’s that this is a theology of hope, not current observation. The meek are gonna get what’s coming to them by and by, not that there is any evidence to support that. If you think the evil are going to amount to nothing, it’s based on an understanding of what true and eternal happiness is that isn’t reflected in what you see on TV. That’s for sure.
  2. My soul needs the balance. This has been a week, although truthfully, every week is like this if you pay attention. On Monday I read about older people trapped in a Kafkaesque hell by predatory professional guardians, and I also read about the increasing likelihood that you will die alone. On Tuesday I read about a sexual predator who was lauded by our culture’s powers-that-be and unhindered in his devastation for decades, a company that runs camps for juvenile offenders that led to multiple deaths, a system of juvenile justice in a major US metro that systematically victimized those it was charged to restore to wholeness. On Wednesday, I read about natural disasters that killed a couple married 75 years and are slowly jeopardizing the lives of an island of 3+ million people. On Thursday, I read about the genocide of a people by Buddhists, for gosh sake, including the testimony of a 20-year old whose 18-month old was torn from her hands and thrown into a fire, then dragged off to be gang-raped while her parents and siblings were killed in the same place. Usually, God’s prophets bring a message of warning, like Jonah or John the Baptist: repent or else. But sometimes, things suck so bad that God’s messenger has to say: it sucks now, but I swear you aren’t forgotten. Read the news these days, and you need that prophet to appear.

If you’re prone to agnosticism, or even the mildest of skepticism, this sounds pretty dang fishy. So you’re saying your God is tough when you’re strong enough to take it, but mushy when you’re in a bad way. Uh-huh.

But, look, is that not what Love does? When my wife or daughter or friend is confidently wrong, I can nudge them back toward the path. But when they are lost and broken-hearted? I have to encourage first.

I get that music can be a vehicle for both movements of the human and divine spirit. If you think I’m a musical simpleton for soaking in God’s goodness through music in uncomplicated tunes, I’ll plead guilty. The complexity of the world is enough right now, and I pray in hope of the day when it’s music that challenges me instead of the news.

 

All About Expectations

I kinda thought my next post wouldn’t be until Pope Francis published his encyclical on the environment, but I realized that there’s been a lot of attention about this week’s extraordinary synod of bishops on the topic of the family, and my non-Catholic, was-Catholic, and Catholic-but-busy friends were aware and not necessarily sure about it. So let me throw a few things out there.

First of all, I’m hugely grateful that the Church leaders are looking at Catholic family life as in crisis and need of rethinking. I play a small role in our parish’s marriage prep process, and that fact alone should be enough to tell you that we need to do better. I have talked a couple into delaying if not calling off their wedding, but I have also seen couples who seemed very much on the right track have their marriages quickly fall apart. It is horribly painful for them, and I feel like I and the Church have failed them.

Second, let me say that I have not been watching live streams of the goings on, only monitoring some news coverage, so I am by no means an expert on the process or the likely outcome of this meeting. But I can share a few things and my best hope for the process.

In the run-up to this meeting, the interviews with participants have all included a statement about how, yes, it’s great that the media is interested in this BUT we need to set expectations. This will not be a groundbreaking meeting, nor will it be a duke-it-out debate. And they are right. But the “lower expectations” message has at least three levels, and you need to understand them all.

First of all, there’s the level of process. This extraordinary synod is called that because it’s not a regularly scheduled meeting, not because it’s going to do earth-shaking stuff. It decidedly is not, from a process perspective, because the goal of this meeting is to set the agenda for the ORDINARY synod that is already scheduled next year. If you work for a big enough organization, the “meeting to plan what we will talk about at the meeting” phenomenon is painfully normal. That’s what this is.

The second “low expectations” message is about doctrine. The participants have said that this is about pastoral issues, not doctrinal ones. What that means is, among other things, the Pope and cardinals are not going to wrap up this process by saying “Remember all that stuff about contraception/gay marriage/polygamy? Never mind. We’re changing those rules.” So if your threshold on “worth reconsidering the Catholic Church” is for the Church to say the sacrament of Catholic marriage is open to same-sex couples, I don’t see the synod clearing that bar or even attempting it.

Now, the third “low expectations” message, I think, is more questionable. Some of the more traditional bishops have made noises that, whatever the synod is about, it’s primarily about being more effective at educating those in the pews on what Catholic teaching is on family issues. Essentially, at it’s most humble, this line of argument says that Church leaders just need to get better at communicating the truth. (At its least humble, it says that we parishioners need to get better at hearing and obeying the truth.)

My expectation is that this line won’t win. Already in this synod, it seems pretty clear that the participants are invested in focusing on how to effectively share the love of God and minister to people in all life settings, and there seems to be a recognition that just as we are all children of God, there are elements of God’s grace and love in relationships that don’t quite align with the Catholic ideal of sacramental marriage. Even the first day included some detailed and pointed discussion about how Church leaders need to adopt more thoughtful language – labeling believers as “living in sin” or “fundamentally disordered” puts up some pretty significant barriers to evangelizing. That may sound simple, but it’s still progress.

Here’s where I realistically (I think) hope this ends up: at the end of the ordinary synod, the Church reaffirms that the full sacramentality of marriage is intact as the ideal for family life and we need to do more to help Catholics understand all that that entails and offers (which is WAY more than simply one man, one woman, saving yourself for marriage, being open to children by not using artificial contraception, and not divorcing; if you’re not familiar with the Theology of the Body, read up on it). At the same time, there is a statement that we are all on a path to holiness, and we as Church need to support each other in that journey not only by holding up the ideal but loving each other in the imperfect and real as a way to encourage progress and spiritual growth. That means putting love before judgement in all the areas where the Catholic Church currently is perceived to have it the other way around, even while encouraging fellow believers to make the next right choice.

Pope Francis’ most famous statement of his early pontificate was about gay clergy: “Who am I to judge them if they are seeking The Lord in good faith?” My cautious expectations are for more in that vein such as:

-Recognizing that God’s love can manifest itself, if imperfectly, in same-sex and non-marital relationships. While these aren’t marriage in the sacramental sense, they are still of value as opportunities to grow in love.

-Acknowledging that, even if the choice of artificial contraception is against Church teaching, couples who are deliberate and prayerful in approaching that choice may grow in their appreciation of the holiness of marriage through the process.

-(This might be the toughest) Affirming that only God truly knows the state of a person’s soul, and that, just as the sacrament of Eucharist was instituted with a group of apostles who were themselves sinners, and as it is a sign of God’s grace in sanctifying us as imperfect creatures, all who believe in the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine and who confess the Catholic faith should be welcome to receive it. Even those who have divorced and remarried.

Ok, maybe my expectations are too high, too.

The Whole Pope Thing

It dawned on me during my Italian vacation that some of my readers may not understand how the whole “pope” thing is understood by Catholics. It’s pretty important, so let me spell it out.

I think most people understand that the pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church, but that’s not the whole deal. In Matthew 16:18-19, Jesus tells Simon Peter “you are a rock, and on this rock foundation I will build my church, and not even death will ever be able to overcome it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven; what you prohibit on earth will be prohibited in heaven, and what you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.” (That’s the Good News Bible, a liberal and decidedly non-Catholic translation. More traditional translations also sow the seeds for the sacrament of reconciliation or confession, which is a whole ‘nother issue.)

The Catholic Church understands these verses to mean that Jesus made Peter the primary leader of the universal church, which the book of Acts seems to support. The Church also holds that when Peter died, that role didn’t die with him; instead, the leaders who had been supporting Peter prayed for God to point them toward a successor. And when that guy (Saint Linus) died, the next one was picked, and so on. Francis is the 267th in that line.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple; there were schisms and anti-popes and popes who died before being consecrated and popes who were just really bad guys. But that’s the concept, and when you see how Catholics treat Francis, it’s worth remembering that we see him as the successor to Peter and Vicar of Christ.

The Good Pope

Ever since Pope Francis’ election, I’ve been thinking that the mainstream has been missing the mark by saying that we’ve never had a pope like him before. John XXIII has always been one of my favorites, even though he died years before I was born and decades before I became a Catholic. I can’t do justice in this blog to the points of comparison, but is just finished Greg Tobin’s The Good Pope and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It doesn’t have all the Yogi Berra-esque humor that he was known for, but it captures the man well. It’s so fitting that Francis recognized him as a saint (so, yes, this is the one that was proclaimed a saint along with John Paul II), because the similarities are so strong. Read up on him and you’ll see. Whether Francis’ focus on family life over the next year approaches Vatican II in impact, we will see. But they are at least kindred spirits.

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What if?

You might have heard of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven life. Pastor Warren isn’t Catholic, but his five-fold description of what the Christian life is about mirrors almost exactly the five-fold roles of the Church that our local diocese (collection of Catholic Churches run by a bishop) used in a class I took a few years ago. Warren says we are called to: worship, discipleship, community, service, and witness. If you think about what a church does, at least the good stuff, it pretty much fits in those five categories.

What Francis is challenging us to think about is this: what if, instead of trying to do five things, we focused first on witness, or evangelizing, of spreading the good news, and the other four things supported that one priority? It’s easy to look at churches today and see that some seem more focused on worship, while others are really focused on their community, and others service, and some on discipleship and building up the knowledge of faith of their members. But what if churches all focused on spreading the word, and worship was meant to support that word-spreading, discipleship was about helping people be better word-spreaders, community was really about sharing the joys and frustrations of spreading the word, and service was just a nonverbal way of sharing the good news?

That’s what the “new evangelization” challenges us to be. Maybe, later, I will reflect on how a Catholic Church that was first focused on evangelizing might look, act, and be different from what we find today. But for now, let me just let you sit with that question and say that for any of what Francis writes to make any sense, you’ll need to be thinking “What if the church was evangelizer first?”

Incidentally, this is neither a new idea (it’s been around since at least the end of the oldest gospel, Mark), nor only a Catholic one. David Platt’s Follow Me starts from this premise, and, while I haven’t yet read it, I understand Francis Chan’s Multiply does too.

The major themes in Joy of the Gospel (as I see them)

Here’s a rough road map of where I hope to head with these posts. As I studied the Joy of the Gospel, I found myself agreeing with the commentators who complained that this is a tough document to summarize. The themes I’m focusing on are really interrelated, but I will do my best to tease out what I see in the document that makes each one worth talking about separately. Here’s my list:

    The joy of the gospel vs. the anguish of the world

    A call to focus on mercy/grace/forgiveness over sin/law/judgement

    The Church should be local, personal, externally focused, communal (& poor)

    The value of diversity

    Renewing the preferential option for the poor

    Solidarity

    Peace and unity

These are major themes, some of them overtly so. There are also a couple of trends, motifs, whatever you want to call ’ems that I noticed and wanted to share:

    Francis and the devolution of Church power from the papacy to the people

    “All things new” – while Francis draws heavily upon and writes within the context of Catholic doctrine, there is a theme of God working to make all things new that needs to be culled out.

    What Francis asks of us

And then there are a couple leftovers that I may throw in at the end: “Haters gonna hate” and great quotes that didn’t fit elsewhere.