Category Archives: tangential

Fortress or Field Hospital?

I’ve been reflecting on the current stage of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church as seen through the lens of moral foundations theory, because it seems to me that one of the dimensions of dissonance in the responses of Catholic factions to what’s been unfolding since the summer of ‘18 relates to the findings of those proposing this new theory of moral psychology.

A little while ago, I read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and (perhaps appropriately) it really struck home by validating something I saw in myself and the people around me. That is, people are not morally rational…at least not primarily rational. Instead, people form an opinion, especially about morality, intuitively, in their emotional center, and then turn to reason to justify that heartfelt opinion secondarily. What changes people’s minds, Haidt argues, isn’t really a change of mind; it’s a change of heart, usually by intersecting with personal stories that shift their current worldview by exposing them emotionally to another way of seeing a situation.

Moral foundations theory, which Haidt outlines in the book, assumes that communities of interest prioritize different constellations of moral values, with some mix of care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and maybe liberty/oppression. Haidt (himself a self-professed progressive atheist) argues that progressives tend to keep their moral reasoning almost exclusively in the first two dimensions, while conservatives tend to use all of them in more of a balance. (Libertarians are a special breed, who in part sparked the addition of the sixth provisional value set.)

In trying to understand my friends who believe that the root cause of the current crisis is the tolerance of deviance from church teaching on sexuality (by which I don’t only mean openness to LGBT believers, but recognizing that that’s the key issue), what keeps coming up in my mind is an observation that they are driven by a deeply felt sensitivity to sanctity and degradation. At a very obvious level, this applies to a reaction to the idea of same-sex sexual relations at all by those who are offended by them; clearly, they would hold that same sex relations violate the sanctity of the divine design of human sexuality and signal the degradation of what sex was meant to be.

But, deeper than that, there’s a sense that what it means to be Christian is to seek sanctity and purity and to actively keep out all that degrades. The other elements are important – authority in determining purity, loyalty to that vision of sanctity, etc. But in this understanding, the Church is a fortress in a viciously antagonistic world, one that must be kept secure by keeping it pure, by keeping out those who by their identities would degrade it.

You could do a full-out Bible Study on Old and New Testament passages that underscore this point. I’m not going to, but I welcome those who want to. I’m just conceding that this is a narrative of what it means to be holy that extends back to the beginning of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

But it’s not the only narrative that can claim that heritage and power, and that may be the issue at play in a lot of the dissension we’re seeing today. What Pope Francis brought to his papacy was a different model of what it means to be Church (one echoed by his predecessor Saint Pope John XXIII and many others): Church as field hospital. Let me try to make that case:

One of the gifts of Catholicism is the lectionary – a break down of the Bible into chunks of Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament and Gospel passages that cycle you through most of the Bible every three years on Sundays and every two years on weekdays. Today, tomorrow, and any day, every Catholic Church in the world (pretty much) will read and reflect on the same set of readings, including at least one Gospel passage, one Psalm, and one other reading. These were set decades ago, so it’s not the case that a pastor wakes up, is struck by a particular thing, and goes to pick readings to underscore that thing. You have to play the cards that are dealt, and while that doesn’t cover the entire Bible, it covers most of it. So if you’re Catholic (or attend another Church that follows a common lectionary), you will hear over the course of time a broader lens of what’s in the Bible, I would argue, than if you are attending a Church in which a pastor picks one book at a time to go deep on. (Growing up in such a Church, I got a heavy dose of Pauline letters; less so the other stuff.)

I raise that to say, it is really, really hard to listen to Jesus’ exploits, both of word and deed, every single day without getting a clear sense that he was deeply subversive and intensely driven by care. Most of what He says, and most of what He does, centers around breaking a norm in order to show care and, even more subversive, actively include those who had been cast out as degrading, unsanctified. Widows and orphans, sure. Those afflicted by deformities and illnesses blamed on their sin or their parents, you bet. But lepers and bleeding women and Samaritans and Romans who were specifically declared unclean and degrading to observers of the Hebrew law of the time.

His subversive focus on care didn’t just undercut the sanctity/degradation and the authority/subversion realms. He violated fairness in what he said, all the time. The parable of the workers said forget paying people based on how hard they worked; shower them all with enough. The parable of the Prodigal Son becomes the parable of the Prodigal Father, who lets his son waste away half his inheritance on wine, women and song and then throws a feast to welcome him back, ticking off the older son who still clings to fairness and all-but-shouts “He’s cheating!” And, perhaps most uncomfortably, in his crucifixion and resurrection, he testifies that even the most malevolent harm can be transformed into loving care, not only for the sinless Son, but for the thief rightfully executed at his side.

In the light of that subversive ethos, this counternarrative of the Church says we are not called to be set apart from the hurting as a shining, exemplary, pure fortress on a hill; we are called to be a field hospital, choosing as Jesus did to go straight toward the margins, to actively embrace those that purity says you should keep at arm’s length, to overwhelm them with love and let yourself take on their stain in the process. One of the fundamental turning points in St. Francis of Assisi’s life doesn’t get as much play in the arts and legends as his taming wolves and preaching to birds. When he was younger, he was horrified by the lepers outside Assisi’s walls, reflecting the cultural norms and good hygiene. But in the process of his conversion, God confronted him with a leper who Francis finally saw not as an impurity or a threat but as a brother needing human touch. When Francis hugged the leper he had earlier scorned, it marked the turn toward sainthood. So are we called as Christians to love first those most scorned by our society, even those that make us go “Eww.” So says the Gospel writers. So says Francis of Assisi. So says the current pope, as imperfect as his example may prove to be.

I obviously have a rooting interest between these narratives, so I admit the bias. But it seems to me that our choice of vision is one of running away from sin or running toward love. Either way, you’re running; one direction is clean and cold, and the other is warm and messy. Like I said, I’ve made my choice based on the God I’ve encountered in Word, Spirit and Sacrament. But I also need to recognize that others hearing the same Word, participating in the same Sacrament, and receiving the same Spirit might be pulled in the other direction. (And the test I will offer – which life brings the most evidence of the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, and the like) – might be a split decision or draw to a truly objective judge.)

As (almost) all of us react in horror to the thought that 16 years after US Catholic Bishops adopted a charter to protect children from sexual abuse, there remain thousands of cases (perhaps) that have never been reconciled, and a hierarchical culture of coverup, you notice that some people’s horror is a little different from others. The victims of abuse lose when we allow ourselves to obsess on those differences rather than the crimes from which there has been no repentance. But maybe if we understand how these divergent narratives of what the Church should be drive those differences, we can give them a nod of understanding and shrug them off enough to focus together on bringing care to the victims and justice to the wronged, and we can rebuild a Church that can hold together the tension of fortress and field hospital.

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Why I’m Staying

Last week I had planned to write about John Courtney Murray and the concept of religious freedom in American Catholic thought, as a follow up to the piece I did on Romans 13 that exactly three people read. But I wasn’t up to it. I will admit that the news from the Pennsylvania grand jury and former Cardinal McCarrick made me pause. So I wrote a little about that instead, and then I kind of stewed in the aftermath of statements by various bishops and, eventually, the pope.

A couple of my beloved atheist and agnostic friends asked a question that a lot of people are asking a lot of Catholics this week, I expect: how can you stay in a church that would allow such horrors to happen? It’s a legitimate question – so much so that our priest last night even said in his homily that he can’t argue with people who decide to leave the Church after the latest revelations of systematic cover-ups by bishops of sexual abuse of minors by priests. He gave an impassioned plea for staying, but I realized my answer to the question “Why stay?” was maybe a little different than his.

It’s probably worth noting that I chose to become Catholic as an adult after being raised in the United Methodist Church and schooled in enough mainline Protestant denominations (Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Baptist) that I was probably one Lutheran church-school short of hitting for the cycle. I wrote about my (then-20-year-old) decision a few years ago, and a lot of those reasons, both for joining the Church and for growing in loyalty to her, remain the same. But here are the reasons that stand out in this moment as to why I’m not leaving, for what it’s worth:

  1. Sacramentality – (Probably not a word) – This was the argument our priest leaned on – that Catholicism’s unique embrace of the sacramental nature of the Eucharist means we have access to the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in ways that other churches can’t or don’t claim. Because of my deep affection and respect for my Protestant brothers and sisters, I don’t lean too heavily on this one, but I will say this – with the exception of possibly the Orthodox church, Catholicism stands out among Christianity for its sense of mystery. While a lot of Protestant and Evangelical worship and practice focuses almost exclusively on the Word – on Scripture, preaching, and reasoned theology – Catholicism bears witness to the transcendent, ineffable, felt-not-thought elements of encountering the divine. It’s funny, because many Catholic converts seem to be attracted to its sense of certainty and predictability, but to me, the sacramentality of the faith points to worship of God as an encounter that has to be felt and not just understood, that can’t be completely explained, that carries a degree of unpredictability. I can only really accept a god who is bigger than I can possibly understand. The emphasis on word and sacrament together continues to challenge the limits of what I think I know of God. I fully believe that those who worship God through other denominations (and other religions) can experience God’s transcendence, but this is the channel that most reliably forces me to appreciate that transcendence and bring both my heart and head to worship.
  2. Globality – (Almost certainly not a word) – At some point, I really do hope to get to spend longer stretches of time writing about the intersection of faith and public policy. In the meantime…one thing that I appreciate about the Catholic Church is its universality. In every corner of the globe, EVERY DAY, people are praying the same prayers and reading the same readings in their own languages. While the hierarchical nature of the Church may be responsible for the ethos that has led to the current awful mess, we live in an age in which much of American Christianity is really just a front for civil religion, for nationalism with a cross on top, for a validation of the status quo. Catholics aren’t at all immune to this temptation, but the fact that the Church has a headquarters, and that the address isn’t in the US, provides a greater opportunity for prophetic criticism of the powers that be. We could use a lot more of that, for sure, but it’s easier for me to see how that prophetic distance happens in a Church that isn’t tied to national borders or atomized into individual, loosely connected congregations.
  3. Theology – (Definitely a word. Probably a concern that this isn’t higher on the list.) – I’ve been wrestling with an idea that this set of scandals may ultimately vindicate the Augustinian-Calvinist view of the total depravity of man, which I may come back to another day. But in this case, what I value about my Catholic faith is the focus on repentance, confession, and reconciliation. The sacrament of Reconciliation (or Confession) is where people focus on this, and I know that’s a barrier for many Protestant brothers and sisters. But for me, it underscores the slow work of grace and the role we play as active responders to that grace by acknowledging our sins, not only to God but to our brothers and sisters, and seeking reconciliation. More than anything else, what has haunted me about this scandal is that bishops built a culture that chose, instead of seeking reconciliation, to hide their sins and those of the priests they supervised. That is both a criminal and theological abomination. But it’s through the Catholic language of reconciliation that I can best express that abomination. That Church leaders ignored the practice and ethos of the faith doesn’t invalidate that ethos.
  4. Faithful relationality – Last Friday, the readings for daily mass were from Ezekiel and Matthew. The Ezekiel reading (the shorter of the two options) was about how God was going to confront those who turned their backs on him and overwhelm them with shame by showering them with forgiveness. The Matthew reading was one of the ones where the Pharisees quiz Jesus on rules of divorce and he says that we weren’t made for divorce but for marriage. As I sat in mass, what struck me was the relevance of these readings to today; specifically, that they spoke to God’s call to fidelity in the midst of our infidelity. God doesn’t accept or ignore our penchant for unfaithfulness, but he confronts it and calls us to repent of it and learn fidelity instead. Much of the meager spiritual growth I have experienced in my life has come from practicing the drudgery of faithfulness: keeping small promises, participating in daily rituals, reading the day’s readings. Catholicism has lots of opportunities to improve my ability to be faithful. But more than that, faith itself isn’t about cognitive belief as much as it is about loving relationship, with God and with God’s people. I’m a member of the Catholic Church, but I’m also a member of my Catholic Church, and “member” – long since trivialized – is meant as “part of one body.” It may be a screwed up, dysfunctional body (sometimes because of me, sometimes in spite of me). But it’s the one I’m attached to. As much as we Americans value consumerism and the ability to make individual, disposable choices, over reliance on that mode of living deprives us of true belonging. Sure, I could choose to leave for another church. But in doing so, I’d be practicing the opposite of the sometimes painful faithfulness to God and the people God gives me that is at the center of what I think it means to believe.
  5. History  – One of the treasures I’ve only begun discovering as a new(ish) Catholic is the history of the church as told through the lives of the saints. That historical thread that runs from Peter to today is attractive to me, but it also gives me context to reflect upon the question of leaving. The more saints I learn about, the more I learn that the history of the Church has always been a jagged one, with corruption threatening to send it careening off the tracks, only to be saved by corrective reformers from within (including and especially non-priests like Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena). As a product of the Reformation, I don’t mean to cast aspersions on those who left the Church. But Jesus was pretty clear about wanting His believers to be unified. I decided 24 years ago that, as unlikely as I was to change the Church in anyway, my odds were better from within than outside it.

There are some other reasons – some more trivial, some more reflective of my idiosyncrasies – but these are the ones I’d suggest make the idea of abandoning the Church a non-starter for me. They may not be compelling to you at all…and I understand that. I don’t share this so much to convince others to stay as to explain why that’s the choice I make.

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.

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.

A Personal Note

We’ve been listening to this soundtrack in our house a lot. My daughter and I are both pretty fixated on this show (I mean, in case this blog didn’t already give you that impression), and my wife likes it a lot, too, so it plays throughout the house as background in the evenings even as we’re in our own zones.

The other night, when “Tightrope” came on, I ducked into the room where my daughter was at the time and said, “This song always reminds me of your mom and me.”

“Why? You never did anything crazy, like buy an old building with wax figures of Marie Antoinette and giraffes,” she said.

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April and I dated all the way through college, and for the first 11 years of our relationship, she saw me for who I was. Every semester, I started dreaming about what I was going to take the following semester. I changed majors enough that it was easier, going through the course catalog, to point to the (non-STEM) majors I hadn’t considered than to list all the ones I had. When graduation approached, I juggled ideas for graduate school ranging from religion to public administration to political science to law to business to what-else-is-out-there. I wanted to do all the things.

I got a professional degree for a vocation (ministry) that I knew I did not want to pursue. While there, I talked my way into interning with the (then-World Series) Atlanta Braves’ chaplain, even though he had never had an intern. When I left school, it was to go into sports, where my career path was:

  • unpaid intern for Minor League Baseball’s AA Southern League
  • intern for NCAA Division III (non-scholarship) athletic program
  • director of media relations for a startup women’s professional basketball league
  • sports information director for NCAA Division II all-women’s athletic program
  • (accidentally become head of public relations for that same school)
  • sleep on my sister’s floor, two flights away, while telemarketing for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays
  • dream of being the general manager of a Minor League Baseball Class A Florida State League team and run it like a circus

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When our daughter started to develop a personality, one of the things that popped up quickly was that she was a dreamer. April would look at me in those times when she set outlandish, slightly off-kilter goals (like founding “Dog Cirque du Soleil”) and say, “She is definitely your kid.” But, more seriously, April would say how glad she was that our daughter inherited my head in the stars rather than her feet so firmly planted on the ground.

While April would be the first to say that she is not a dreamer, she would also confirm that she knew who she was marrying and signed on whole-heartedly for the adventure. Even though my career path got a little more conventional, life with me still brings its twists and turns and off-kilter dreams, and she has continued to gladly dance on the tightrope with me.

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.