Saturday, February 1, 2014

What Does It Mean to Pray?

What is prayer? It feels like everyone has the same question. We know that prayer is something we should do, but no one feels very good at it, or even that we’re doing it right. We have this idea of prayer, on our knees with hands clasped as we think thoughts towards God. It’s how we’re taught to pray as children, and we don’t know how to go beyond that. It’s unsatisfying.

It’s frustrating. We’re told that prayer can be amazing, that it’s essential to a well-balanced life. But nothing we do even comes close, let alone the ecstasy that saints used to have. We’re told that some people used to pray for hours, and I can’t even last five minutes without thinking that it’s stupid sometimes.

We need a new model. One of the best things I was ever told was that prayer is supposed to be relational, not a duty. We don’t pray because we have to, we pray to reach out to someone. If prayer should be a relationship, we should look at how we talk to our friends and our family, the people we already have relationships with. Maybe that means we give a second look at texting.

I was talking with a friend, and she described to me how her brother ALWAYS has to be texting his girlfriend. They text back and forth constantly about the dumbest things. They also live four hours apart, so it’s not hard to see that they care about each other a lot, and want to be present with each other throughout the day. Its a lot like how I want to be with God.

I’ve talked with teachers, and it’s ridiculous what kids text to each other, even in the same room. It’s literally things as simple as “Hey, look at me and make a face.” When we text, we don’t worry about making each message important, or intentional. We just say whatever we’re thinking about, wanting to connect with that other person.

We should do the same with God. There’s no right way to pray. It’s not a test. We should pray like we talk, because prayer should be the way we communicate with the person we care about. It’s ok if we “pray-text” God throughout the day. Surprisingly enough, it’s a very old way of praying. Back in the day they called it “ejaculations.” People used to memorize short snippets of prayers and say them throughout the day, making God a part of their lives.

It’s a similar to “offering things up to God.” Our parents did this a lot growing up; whenever something bad happened, or they had to do something they didn’t like, they were told to “offer it up to God.” The idea was that Christ suffered, and when we suffer we join in His suffering. Just like when athletes complain to each other about hard workouts, or sick people commiserate about their illnesses, sharing our suffering helps us feel closer to each other.

So if we don’t know how to pray, we should look at how we talk. What brings us closer to our best friends? Is it long talks at night? Long, carefully considered emails? Or do you feel close to friends just playing games or reading books together? Whatever draws us closer to our friends is what will draw us closer to God. Prayer is how we talk with God; we don’t need to make it any more complicated than that.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

My Thoughts on the March for Life

First of all, go right now and read Chris Hale’s excellent article on CNN about why progressives should be “pro-life.” It’s a great piece for anyone who thinks being anti-abortion is for only conservatives.

That being said, I think we should reflect on what the March for Life is really accomplishing. It’s a great event; tens of thousands of Catholics from all over the US march from the Mall to the Supreme Court every year. It’s awesome to be in the middle of the largest anti-abortion protest in the world. It’s also incredibly “safe.”

Forty years ago the March started spontaneously, as people marched in reaction to Roe vs. Wade. Twenty years ago in the 90s there were still anti-protestors harassing the Marchers. But today the March is a fixture of Catholic High School calendars. Over half of the people attending are under 18, and you can count the groups by their matching caps and scarves. It’s adorable. Some are there to protest, but it’s not hard to see many of them enjoying an exciting field trip. Everything is organized, scheduled, arranged, and sanitized. If some wonder why there isn’t more coverage for the March, it’s because nothing was ever changed by a high school field trip.

It’s impossible to be at the March and not hear the comparison between abortion and slavery. But abortion is not slavery. Both are/were deeply polarizing issues, and both inspired massive movements to outlaw them. But slavery was a deliberate attempt to monetize a class of people slaveholders considered equivalent to animals. It was systemic, calculated, and brutal.

But abortions are not motivated by gain, but fear. Pregnant mothers don’t want abortions because they get something out of it, but because they are afraid of what the child will bring into their lives. We march every year to ban abortion out of a sense of disbelief that such a moral outrage can be tolerated. We never stop to think that the people fighting us do so out of desperation. As Cardinal O’Malley said last year in a fantastic homily, “The pro-life movement has to be about saving women.”

So much of the March is pro-birth, not pro-life. We look around at the posters and the signs, and see things like: “Defend Life!,” “I’m worth waiting for!,” “Defund Planned Parenthood!,” and hundreds of pictures of aborted children. But we never see one picture of a toddler, one picture of a young mother and her baby (Mary and Jesus don’t count), or one picture of a child in foster care. The March is against abortion, but not one group advocates for mothers.

We don’t need to scare women with pictures of dead babies or thousands of chanting protestors. They’re scared enough already. If we make their choice about fear, we make it shameful, and we force people to make decisions with as little outside support as possible.

We need to stop punishing those considering abortion; things like vaginal ultrasounds and mass closing abortion centers only serve to make vulnerable women more afraid and insecure. When we’re desperate, we cling to whatever promise of safety we can reach. Trying to take that away, or making it less accessible, only makes us hold on tighter. We can’t make someone “Choose Life!” through fear.

We need more support for adoption centers and foster homes. Whether federally funded or as nonprofits, we need to put our money where our mouth is. At the March we are told over and over about the billions of babies who die due to abortions. If we banned abortion outright, there is no way we could handle the influx of children needing homes, assuming the parent chose not raise their child.

If the parent (mother or father!) does decide to keep their child, we need to guarantee they have enough support to raise him or her until they are old enough to go to school. It is incredibly hard to find work and raise a baby single handedly. If we do not make daycare affordable and accessible, then the parent needs enough money or a place to live until they find a sustainable solution. We cannot demand a child be born and then ignore it. We are responsible for a child’s wellbeing if we demand that they be born.

So much of our fear over raising children is about money. If we demand that unborn children be born and raised, then we should ensure a parent can find work they can raise a child on. No one can raise a child alone on minimum wage, yet that is exactly what we expect of mothers without education or experience.

The March for Life is a great event. But it has become safe, repetitive, and ignorant about the consequences should it succeed. Next year I want to see at least one group marching with posters of mothers with young children, demanding we be “pro-life.”

Monday, January 20, 2014

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

What does it mean to be a prophet? What do we do when God calls to us in our lives?

In 1955 Flannery O’Connor wrote her second and final novel, The Violent Bear It All Away. It describes the young man Tarwater fighting against his calling to be a prophet. For the entire novel the boy literally runs away, and he is determined to do the exact opposite of his duty. Instead of burying his great-uncle he burns the house down with him in it; instead of baptizing his “idiot” cousin he drowns him. But even in the act of drowning Tarwater says the words of baptism, and by the end of the book we discover the great-uncle safely buried despite Tarwater’s arson. He finally realizes he cannot escape his calling and gives in:

He felt his hunger no longer as a pain but as a tide. He felt it rising through the centuries, and he knew that it rose in a line of men whose lives were chosen to sustain it, who would wander in the world, strangers from that violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth. He felt it building from the blood of Abel to his own, rising and engulfing him.

The call of God is compelling. It is impossible to ignore, as anyone who has heard that little voice in the back of their head knows. Tarwater describes it as a hunger, and nothing he eats satisfies him. He feels no peace, no solace until he gives into his call and acts. The mark of a prophet then, is the undeniable call of God that compels them to act.

Their compulsion is impossible for us to ignore. Isaiah prophesied the eventual triumph of Israel, not just its reclamation but its crowning, and his words sustained the scattered Israelites in their exile. John the Baptist retreated to the wilderness, but people burdened with sin flocked to him for hope. Paul converted the world to Christ with his words and his example.

Why are we pulled to these people? Their words still pull us 2000 years away, and their successors strike at our hearts. The mark of a prophet is also the hunger they plant in us. We all know the feeling, when God speaks to us from the Mass, or a book, or a homily, or a friend in conversation. A prophet is not just a man in the wilderness, but one who speaks God’s truth from compulsion. The mark of that truth is its undeniability. The words will compel us to act, compel us to change; to repent and be born again into that strange country, the kingdom of Heaven.

What, then, can we do with the prophets’ words? When they compel us to act, to change, and the call scares us in its compulsion? We are told “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Our fear is honest and justified, because what we are called to is radical. We are called by the prophets, compelled by God, to minister to the poor, heal the sick, to take care of widows and children, and visit the imprisoned. We are called to prioritize the weak and vulnerable in the world over the rich and powerful, and it is terrifying. While we admire those who do so, we know it is risky. To serve them instead of the powerful is to spend our time and money on those who can’t reward us, can’t compensate us. It dooms us to a life on the edges, away from safety. The poor can’t give you fame, or help you save for your children’s college.

The prophets themselves model how we should act, and they point to Christ. Isaiah says in the reading today:

“And I am made glorious in the sight of the Lord, and my God is now my strength!”

It is terrifying to hear the voice of God. It is scary to hear His whisper in our lives, calling us in the quiet moments when we are undistracted by TV or socializing. But we are called. We are called to respond “Yes!,” and the call does not go away because we ignore it. It is compelling in our deepest hearts and secret thoughts.

And if we say “yes,” God will sustain us. That is His promise to the prophets, to Christ, and to us. If we choose to walk with Him we will not be alone. He will give us strength for the journey, and He will help us to do such amazing things!

“It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Monday, November 12, 2012

What is Love? Baby don't hurt me.

What is love? Baby don’t hurt me.

Love is such a ubiquitous word, especially for English speakers. We love pie (or cake), we love our friends, our girlfriends, we love our country and we love getting off work early. We love our God. But even though we use the same word for different things, we don’t think that the love we have for pie is the same kind of love we have for God or girlfriends (though I may love pecan pie more many girlfriends…)

Because we have one word that covers so many things, it’s hard to know what people mean when they use it. When they use love as a philosophy and say things like: “We should just love other people,” the question should be “what kind of love?”

Jesus did said “love thy neighbor,” but he had a very specific idea in mind. He taught that there are two commandments based on love: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind,” and “love thy neighbor like thyself.” The second commandment is like the first, because the first says that love is giving everything to God, our entire selves. If we give that kind of love to our neighbor, it makes sense that we would love our neighbor like ourselves. They have part of us with them.

Love means gifting ourselves to others. It’s not a desire, or an appreciation, or tolerance. To love like Jesus tells us to is to share openly and be vulnerable; it means investing ourselves in others in ways that they may use to hurt us later. That is why there is an ethic to love.

In the parable of the good Samaritan, love implies a duty, a call to action. We are called to relationship, and to ignore a stranger in need is to ignore a brother or ignore yourself. Being called to love means that the people we meet have the capacity to receive that love; it means acknowledging the humanity in one other, the spark of God we share between us.

Love also entails a responsibility. When we sin and fall short of God, we harm ourselves. We are who we should be when we are at our best, and that best is when we follow God. This is why Jesus tells the apostles that when a brother sins against you, show him his fault between the two of you. If that does not work, bring a friend, and if that still doesn’t work then bring him before the elders of the church. If none of these succeed in correcting your brother, then expel him from the community. We have a responsibility to convert the world because the Christian life is the truest and leads to the person God intends for us to be. When our brothers and sisters in Christ fall short, love impels us to correct them. The tough love we are commanded to show other Christians is only tough because salvation is so serious. If they profess to want it, they should not be accepted as they are, but as they should be.

When people use “love” they usually mean “tolerate” or “accept.” They mean that we shouldn’t judge other people, or impose our own beliefs. Many people use “love” as a way to remain impartial or take no sides, but that kind of love means loving other people no more than cake or pie. I accept them as they are, without requiring change.

But a love that means relationship, where people hold parts of our heart, soul, and mind requires more than that. That intimacy requires duty, responsibility. We can hurt each other too easily. This is what marriage is: a promise before God and the Church to hold in trust and commitment the gift of self our spouse is making. This is why sex outside of marriage is so damaging, because we love and give ourselves to each other with abandon, and that gift is so often betrayed.

Love is a holy thing. It should be treated as such, with all the respect, awe, responsibility, cherishment, and grace it deserves. It is hard to be in relationship with all people, but love demands we be open to that. It is hard to demand people change when we say we love them, but if we demand the best from ourselves we cannot do less for others. It is hard to honor the love between us correctly, and we hurt each other too much.

But this is the love that Jesus models for us, the love that loved perfectly but suffered, that accepts our wounds against him and loves us still. Love in the world is raw and tender, but it is the greatest gift we are given.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jesus is the redemption and glorification of the original promise.

In the first reading we see the creation of man and woman, the first husband and wife. Out of all of creation there is no one who is a suitable partner for man but woman, and together they are more than just partners, they are one flesh. “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife.” The original promise of marriage, the mystery of the union, is the promise of finding what is lacking in each other and binding the incomplete halves together so tightly that one would think no more of separating from their spouse than they would their body.

We’ve lost that in time since. By the time of Moses, Paradise had fallen and divorce was already necessary because of sin. With sin, the original promise of Eden is lost and impossible to find. But Jesus is our redemption and our salvation. Because “for a time he became little lower than the angels” and gave himself for our sins, Jesus has made perfection possible again. The grace that lives inside of us because of Christ Jesus makes the impossible possible.

This is the redemption of the promise that Christ makes possible again, that we do not need divorce because of Christ’s grace. But Christ has also transformed everything under the law and made it better. He said “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it,” and he has done no less with marriage. We see this in the Church; no longer are we just man and woman, but we are also brothers and sisters in Christ. The consecrated religious do not find a suitable partner among men and women, but give their hearts and lives to God and the Church. What is lacking in ourselves we have found in Christ, and we leave our mothers and fathers to cling to the Rock our savior.

The Psalmist tells us “Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the recesses of your home; your children like olive plants around your table.” Christ is the fruitful vine, and the converts we bring into the church are our children. This is how Paul addresses the churches in his letters, and how the new spiritual family is born. Priests minister to their congregations like a father to sons and daughters, and all of us lay people disciple each other.

We are no longer bound by ordinary flesh and blood. The body Christ gave for the world has superseded the rib that Adam sacrificed for Eve. In Heaven there will be no giving and taking in marriage, because everything that we lack we will find in God. On earth Christ has redeemed ordinary marriage because of his grace, but the consecrated religious show us the marriage of Heaven, the redemption and glorification of the original promise in Paradise.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Fictional Violence vs. Real Life Tragedy

How do we enjoy The Dark Knight Rises after the shooting in Aurora?

It’s an open question. I don’t have an answer, only gut reactions from watching the movie less than a day after 12 people were killed and 50 wounded by a psycho. Last night, James Holmes turned the premiere of TDKR into a massacre when he walked into a theatre and started shooting during one of the movie’s many gunfire scenes. At first, people outside couldn’t distinguish between the real gunfire and the movie; some inside thought the gun sounded like “popping balloons.”

For me, I couldn’t enjoy it. TDKR is a technically great movie; the plot is engaging, the acting incredible, and the world building extraordinary. But it is also an incredibly dark film, and the violence not only explicit but casual. Because of the extreme realism, each death is visceral and painful. With Aurora still fresh in my mind, it was too real.

I watched the theatre hallway during the shooting scenes. I was jumped once a few years ago, and now I’m paranoid enough that I can all too easily picture random acts of violence. Between the realism, Aurora, and my own experience, watching TDKR was an extremely uncomfortable experience.

I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for a movie like this. I’m not even saying it’s too violent. But I am saying that watching the movie after a real life tragedy felt more than a little tone-deaf, and I couldn’t put an appropriate distance between what was fiction and what could be only too real. I didn’t need Bain as a symbol of evil; I already had that in Holmes.

I’m open to other interpretations. It may be that in a few years I would enjoy the film for what it is, a great work of fiction. Maybe I just need the time to inure me to what the fictional deaths would be in reality. Maybe TDKR is a peacetime movie, and it’s good that many people have little enough experience with violence that the movie doesn’t bother them. But right now I can’t do it.

Does anyone else have other thoughts?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Private Charity vs. Social Sharing

I think that we Christians have the wrong idea about what charity is supposed to be.

Take “Obamacare;” one of the main reasons given for opposing it, is that it puts a legal mandate on charity. We believe that we should take care of the poor and the sick, but many people feel that this is something that should be done freely on a personal level. We can’t, or shouldn’t, mandate people through taxes to take care of others.

This makes a lot of sense. We are born with free will, and charity should be freely given. But it sets up a false dichotomy that hurts us as Christians: it says that there are rich, and there are poor, and those who have should give to those who do not have. This is not Christianity.

In today’s second reading, Paul tells us:

“Brothers and sisters:
As you excel in every respect, in faith, discourse, knowledge, all earnestness, and in the love we have for you, may you excel in this gracious act also.

For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. Not that others should have relief while you are burdened, but that as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their needs, so that their abundance may also supply your needs, that there may be equality.

As it is written:
Whoever had much did not have more,
and whoever had little did not have less.”

As Christians, we strive not just for the relief of the poor, but for equality with them. Private charity, where we give to the poor from our abundance, does not embrace equality but sustains injustice, because we give a little but keep a lot. Private charity relies on the dichotomy between rich and poor, but justice seeks to abolish it.

There are many things wrong with Obamacare. How much it will cost is unclear, it includes the unjust HHS Mandate, and it gives tacit support to abortion providers. And we should fight those things. But it is, in its idea, a profoundly Christian attempt to bring justice to charity. It seeks to make all citizens equal, who will all share health care in their abundance, and share health care in their need. Charity should not be the rich burdened by the poor, but an exchange of giving and receiving among brethren. Whether it’s realized or not, our current system burdens the “rich,” because we still provide care to the poor through emergency rooms and free clinics. Sharing health care like Obamacare intends seeks to ease the burden by having everyone share the cost.

The pinnacle of Christianity is not charity. It is solidarity, where barriers are broken down between believers. The Acts of the Apostles describe early believers holding “all things in common.” What Jesus taught was not charity, but social sharing. Our God is the God of life, and of justice, and we should embrace those things that embrace both life and justice.