Tag Archives: family

On sin, love…and sisters

Today I had the honor and responsibility to lead a very informal service for my family in remembrance of my sister, Sharon. I’m not an ordained…anything, really, but it was a family-only thing at one of her favorite places, Whitey’s Fish Camp, and I was as qualified to lead a service as Whitey’s was to be a church.* Thanks to a good friend who actually is a priest, I was able to draw on an order of service, readings, and prayers appropriate to the occasion.

But there’s a slot for a homily. I reflected a lot about what I learned about sin and God’s love from my sister and my family and thought I should share some of it here:

One of the old jokes I learned in seminary was about a new pastor who had finished his first sermon at his first church. He was standing in the back, being complimented by the congregation as they filed out, when an old guy grabbed his hand, pulled him aside, and said, “Son, a sermon should be about three things. It should be about sin. It should be about God’s love. And it should be about half as long as what you just did.”

Obviously, I don’t need to tell a joke to warm up a crowd that is family. But that joke kept coming to mind, because as I reflected on Sharon’s life, I realized that watching her from my vantage point really shaped my theology, my understanding of sin, my understanding of God’s love. I’ll shoot to keep this half as long as a sermon.

Because of where I fell in the family, I never really knew Sharon before addiction knew her, and I was home for some of the hardest years of her life, when she was on her own and out of control. Of course, I’m also blessed to have known her after that, and her marriage, which is my easy mental tent peg for when she turned her life around, is only about a year or two separated from April’s and my marriage.

We get sin and addiction backwards in our culture. We think of addiction as being about doing a lot of sinning, a lot of bad stuff that makes God mad. I don’t think that’s right. Watching how Sharon struggled with addiction, I realized addiction, rightly understood, is the best way I can understand sin.

Sin, like addiction, is the fierce upstream current we have to fight against in order to move toward the light and be the best person we can be; in Romans 7:19, Paul talks about how “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do,” and that’s the force of addiction as surely as it’s the force of sin. Fighting that current takes a ton of courage, and let’s not fool ourselves, we all face addictions. For some of us, they are invisible or socially acceptable, like judgmentalism or anxiety or achievement. For some of us, they are relatively benign, like caffeine or smartphones. For some of us, they are visibly destructive and bring the added current of physical chemical dependency, and they can create a sense of shame that tricks us into staying away from the very love that is the only thing that can help us. To push against that takes a courage we should all admire. That’s what I saw in Sharon. That’s what I understand about sin.

We get God’s love wrong, too. A lot of people seem to think of God’s love as something you have to earn, like he’s an accountant that audits your moral books before paying out blessings. There are legalists who think that way even today, just as there were Pharisees in Jesus’ day. Those legalists complain that a lot of other people today think of God as just an easy grader; he’s still a judge, in their estimate; but he’s willing to let things slide if you show good effort. Those are both wrong; that’s not the love I know.

I saw what God’s love looks like when I was living at home and mom and dad were dealing with Sharon’s wild days. I saw their pain. I saw how many things they tried in order to get Sharon back on track. I saw how much it hurt to realize that the nature of human agency is such that you couldn’t make somebody want something, even if it was making your own child come back to who they really were. And I saw that, even when they tried “tough love,” the “tough” never, ever drowned out the “love.”

That’s the love of God that I know. The love of a parent who wants to return a child back to who they really are and are willing to do anything it takes to make it happen. I learned that from watching Mom and Dad with Sharon. I know families who finally gave up, who cut their lost child or sibling out of the mix. But even when Sharon wasn’t around, she always really was, and we were as happy to welcome her back to herself as the prodigal father welcoming back his prodigal son. And we are blessed — so blessed — that she brought David with her. This is a family full of marriages you can look up to, and Sharon and David’s definitely is among them.

One more thing I learned about life from Sharon is resilience. There were some false starts, some rehabs that didn’t take, and my assumption was that in staring down alcohol it would be all or nothing, that if she ever fell off the wagon it would be to roll all the way back to the bottom of the valley, probably never to get back up.

Sharon had some down times; I think as much as she loved the holidays, they were particularly tough. But those times when she got tripped up, she kept getting back up and shaking it off, and that was a wonder to see. That taught me what resilience was.

I can’t say for sure what happens after death. Christianity proclaims a Resurrection at the end of time, but we also talk about heaven right now. Either way, I believe that death completes the returning of ourselves to wholeness, peace and love by returning us to our source.

I picked the Gospel that I did, the one about the “Good Thief” who asks Jesus, while they’re both being crucified, to remember him. And what Jesus says is “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Today. With me. Paradise.**

I don’t think Sharon had too far to go. Wholeness? She picked up the pieces of the brokenness we all share, and she made it into a whole. Peace? She may not have been perfectly peaceful, but she set aside the restlessness of her younger days. Love? As I said before, she was always the most loving member of the clan.

Last Sunday, our pastor talked about how we can only really love when we know we have been loved, and I know Sharon felt that. That is, if anything can be, the silver lining of the awful timing of her passing. On her last day, she got to soak in the reality that she was SO loved that her sister would give up her kidney for her. May we all feel that much love on our last day.

*Side note: Should you ever go to Whitey’s, do check out the hand-carved tribute to the late Jimmy Van Zant. It’s not exactly a saint’s icon, but it’s the culturally appropriate equivalent.

**That part I pretty much stole from Father Greg Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart. In appreciation, I encourage you to buy not only that book but his coming-soon Barking at the Choir.


Welcome to America! Let us shower you with unrealistic expectations!

Apparently, Pope Francis is coming to the United States. Because this pope has been so surprising, so candid, and so open, just about everyone has some sort of expectation of what he will do and say – in his unprecedented address to Congress, in his White House visit, in his time in Philadelphia coinciding with the World Meeting of Families, in his address to the United Nations, and in all the time in between.

Virtually none of those expectations will be met. For those expecting him to embrace those on the margins in some shocking and meaningful way, I’d make an exception; this is a pastoral pope who wants, it seems, more than anything to communicate to those on the world’s fringes that they are loved by God and the Church. He will walk through a bad neighborhood. He will embrace the homeless. He will visit prisoners. If that’s what you expect of this pope, ok, I’d wager you see a poignant image that underscores that this is what he is about. 

But for those of you enmeshed on either side of the culture wars, I have my doubts. 

Actually, from the sheer number of presentations he will make in politically relevant arenas, I take it back. If you filter through everything he says, I suspect you will be able to pull out a few tweets worth of quotes that underscore your predisposed point. But only by missing the rest of what he says.

Recently a Vatican Radio story reported on a meeting of Catholic legislators from across the world and included an interview with a U.S. Congressperson. Amidst the fawning praise for Francis, the Congressman was asked about the refugee crisis in Europe and, by extension, the implications for the US immigration debate. (N.B. Vatican Radio has been covering the refugee crisis for months. If you want a different perspective on international news, subscribe to their podcast.) After going on about the horrible situation in Europe and the need for authorities to respond, he said, matter-of-factly and without elaboration, “Of course, in the United States, the issues are completely different.”

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who pays attention to America’s fractured politics. Those on the right will hear Francis defend the unborn and the elderly, mourn threats to religious freedom, and call for a greater respect for the traditional family. Those on the left will hear Francis call the US to task for its contribution to climate change, inegalitarianism, and a lack of support for the disadvantaged while preaching love and mercy for those whose lifestyle doesn’t square with church teaching.

And, I expect, both sides will hear correctly, but impartially.

Here is my unrealistic expectation, flying in the face of diplomatic convention: that the pope be explicit about what applies to us, so that nobody can say “The issue here is completely different.”

If religious freedom’s defense applies as much to nuns being forced to provide birth control as to Coptic Christians being be headed for confessing their faith, say that.

If the defense of life on the margins impels people of faith to protect the unborn, the elderly, the economically disavantaged, and the immigrant regardless of status all equally to the point of revamping our economic and social structures, say that.

If being a poor church for the poor requires Americans to change the way they consume, the way they treat the environment, the way their countries treat others, say that.

If supporting families means asserting a superiority of the sacramental understanding of marriage over all other configurations, say that. If it means loving and encouraging all forms of loving family, even those past Church leaders have deemed “disordered,” say that, too.

Because of his willingness to surprise and the evolution of social communications, no pope, perhaps no person, will have had the attention of this nation as thoroughly as Pope Francis in his first visit here. My unrealistic expectation is that he will be specific enough in his comments to prevent anyone from saying credibly, “He wasn’t talking about us.”


I continue to hear from people about the loss of my father. Whether it’s on Facebook, e-mail, via card or in person, my reaction is sometimes surprise that people have heard and always gratitude that they noticed. I know some people who would rather not have the reminder of their loss and the awkwardness of having to respond, and I get that. But that hasn’t been my experience so far.

I do my find myself noticing what people say, because sometimes I think it reflects their own experience. Certainly, those who have experienced close losses of their own seem to have more to say. And I am realizing what a range of responses you can make to someone who is mourning, though I’m not quite sure what I will say to the next friend who travels this road.

One theme I picked up, especially among other men, is the theme “I know he must have been proud of you.” I find myself wondering whether the person who offers that does so from a place of hurt or uncertainty in their own life. There is, if not a stereotype, at least a type about men trying in vain to seek the affirmation of their fathers. 

My dad was proud of me. Even if he wasn’t always sure what I did for a living, or whether I was some sort of political subversive, I always knew he was proud of me, and in his latter years both he and mom would make a point of telling me. But they didn’t need to, because I always knew. I saw it in how they celebrated my successes and gave me perspective about my failures, and I saw it in how they treated each of my siblings and all of their grandchildren. I have done things that they have not been proud of, but I have never been a person they were not proud of. And even though my family has lived very diverse experiences, I truly believe that all of the Johnsons could say that. The experience I’ve had is sort of like the experience of flipping on a light switch — you don’t even stop to think about whether the light will come on, nor do you think about why it will come on; you just know it will. I hope that Betsy will always feel the same and am more intentional about making that point.

I cited the parable of the prodigal son in the eulogy, and I will do it again here. A lot of religious talk focuses on all the things we do that God is not proud of. Not nearly enough religious talk focuses on the powerful and eternal pride God has for who His children – all His children – are. 

Eulogy for my Father

Much to the chagrin of those I work with, I don’t follow scripts. But once I figured out what I wanted to say at my dad’s service today, I wrote it down. 

I am Paul’s son Jeff.

I feel compelled to start with a joke. If you were around my dad at all — if you were a patient in his dentist’s chair or a member of his Sunday School class or Sertoma club or Men’s Prayer Breakfast group or bridge or tennis group, you heard a joke. And if you were a member of his family, at his dinner table and in the car on long vacation drives, you heard *all* the jokes.

Some of you know that before my dad was a dentist, he was a Marine pilot in World War II. What I don’t think he told anybody but me was that he was once called on for a top-secret mission to fly a special delegation across country for an important meeting. He had four passengers: the President of the United States, the country’s richest man, the smartest man in the world, and the greatest evangelist of that time.

As sometimes happens in stories like this, Dad’s plane had a problem: the fuel line leaked, and they were running quickly out of gas far from any safe landing spot. Dad put the plane on autopilot (this was a technologically advanced plane for the time) and went back to the cabin and said “Sirs, I regret to inform you that we have two problems. The first is that we are going to crash. The second is that we have only four parachutes for the five of us.”

Well, the President reacted quickly, saying “Gentlemen, in this dark time of war our nation needs me more than ever. Were I to perish, the spirit of our country would be shaken and our ability to win this war would be in jeopardy. I must survive.” And he took a parachute and jumped out the hatch to safety.

Immediately after, the country’s richest man said “Our economy is only now climbing out of the long Depression. Were I to die, the stock market would be shaken, businesses would collapse, and millions would be thrown back into unemployment. I must survive.” And he grabbed a parachute and out he went.

Right after that, the world’s smartest man said “I have in my mind an idea that will bring peace and prosperity, not only to our country but to the entire world. I must survive to bring that idea to reality.” And he followed the other two out the hatch.

The great evangelist looked at dad and said “Son, I have lived a good life. I know our Maker and I am not afraid to meet Him. Take the last parachute. I’m ready to die.”

And dad said, “Actually, we still have two parachutes.” The evangelist said “It’s a miracle! like the loaves and fishes!” 

And dad said “No, the world’s smartest man grabbed my backpack by mistake.”

Dad told that joke years ago, but I had forgotten it until my daughter told it to me last summer. So whether this is comforting or disturbing, know that dad’s humor has been handed down to future generations.

But I tell that particular joke because I see a lot of Dad in its characters.

Dad wasn’t the President of the United States. But to be President, you have to deeply love your country, and dad was a great patriot. He really was a Marine pilot in the war, and he really did have a secret mission, which thankfully he never had to execute. While most of the stories I heard of his time in the Pacific were fun and games with his fellow pilots, toward the end of the war they were training for a mission to dive bomb Tokyo, which would have likely killed thousands and almost certainly cost them their lives. Fortunately for us, their plans were suddenly changed, and they were pulled back from their forward position without explanation. Days later, when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, they understood why their lives had been spared. But long before he met any of us, dad was prepared to give his life for his country. He continued to serve our nation in the Navy as a dentist, and even after retiring from the military after more than twenty years of service, dad remained an active citizen and student of policy and politics. My dad wasn’t the president of the United States, but he loved our country.

Dad wasn’t the richest man in the country, although he was a great provider for his family. But to be the rich you have to know how to invest wisely and take some risks, and dad did that in what counts. He wasn’t rich in money, but he was rich in relationships. He invested his whole heart in his family and friends, and was rich in love for it. And in terms of taking risks…I’m 46, and I’m still two years younger than dad was when he and mom adopted me as an infant. I realize more and more what a risk, what an act of optimism that was. Dad wasn’t the country’s richest man in money, but he invested his heart wisely, and I’m glad he took some risks with it.

Dad wasn’t the smartest man in the world, although he was awfully bright. It takes not only a quick wit but a clarity of thought to be truly smart, and dad had that. Kristin mentioned some examples of his wit, but the best example of his clarity of thinking was this: in his early twenties, as the war ended, he realized he needed to decide what to do with his life. So he sat down with a sheet of paper and listed out what he liked to do, what he was good at, and what we wanted out of life, and he decided that being a dentist was the best choice for him. He raced through school, taking chemistry courses out of sequence but acing them anyway, which shows he was smart. But the fact that 60 years after making tht decision he was *still* practicing dentistry, because he enjoyed it more than any hobby, is what has always impressed me. People spend thousands of dollars trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, and some of us never figure it out. Dad just needed a sheet of paper and a sharp pencil. He wasn’t the smartest man in the world, but he was a clear thinker.

Dad wasn’t the greatest evangelist of his day. To evangelize, you have to preach the good news of Jesus Christ. Dad was a devoted member of Ortega and he and mom made sure we went to church, and he always prayed at dinner and at family occasions, but other than that, I don’t remember him talking about his faith too much. But when I was in Vacation Bible School here as a kid I remember learning a dippy little song about the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which another Paul, the apostle, listed in Galatians 5:22-23, which I have always used to discern how well I was allowing God to work in my life. I won’t sing the song, but listen to the list:

• Love – I’ve already talked about how richly he loved.
• Joy – Kristin already talked about how joyfully dad lived his life.
• Peace – You know how, when you get to know someone, you can sense if they have some sort of underlying tension in their life that they haven’t resolved? Dad had none of that.
• Patience – OK, I can remember dad getting impatient to get us out the door for things – dinner reservations, vacations, stuff like that. But generally he was a patient man, especially with four daughters. And in the big things, he was imminently patient with us. He never gave up on any of his relationships, like the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, even when some of us strayed off the straight and narrow path, and that’s what God’s patience looks like. He would get impatient when it was time to go, though, and that was true in his last moments. As he lay dying, he kept saying come on! Let’s go! I want to get out of here! Those of us who were there realized that he wasn’t fussing at us to get him out of bed. He was fussing at God to take him home. 
• Kindness – We could be here all day swapping stories of his kindness, but one story I tell often. When dad retired, he and mom started volunteering as drivers for Meals on Wheels and did that comsistently until just a couple years ago. The thought of a 92-year old and his wife taking meals to “the old people” who were often decades younger than them is a testament to their kindness.
• Goodness – I don’t know anyone who has ever questioned dad’s good intent.
• Faithfulness – Dad’s faithfulness in 67+ years of marriage, in commitment to his family, his friends and his community speak volumes. His last request was for mom to be with him.
• Gentleness – Dad was gentle with animals, with children, and with his patients, which is what made him such a beloved dentist. Even in the nursing home where he spent most of the last few months, he frequently thanked and apologized to the staff who were helping him for not being more compliant. That’s gentleness.
• Self-control – whether it was deciding to stop smoking or jogging before jogging was cool, Dad had self-control in abundance. Except when it came to a dish of ice cream.

Francis of Assisi was said to have told his followers “Preach the good news at all times. Use words when necessary.” Dad may not have been the greatest evangelist, but he preached the good news with the way he lived his life. He didn’t need words.

A central part of that good news is that death does not get the last say and that love wins out. We know that dad lives in each of us who were changed for the better for knowing him, and we have faith that he lives eternally in God’s love. One of the downsides of living to 94 is that many of your friends beat you through heaven’s door. So while we know there are many familiar faces in heaven’s welcoming party, it’s a comfort to our family to have so many friends of his and of ours here today to celebrate his life. Thank you for coming.

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.