Monday, December 1, 2014

Christmas and White Privilege

As I think about Christmas, and the coming of Christ (historical, within and among us, and future), the events that have taken place in Ferguson, MO and around the country, remind me how far we have to go in recognizing the presence of Christ in another person.

Crime aside, not following orders aside, self-defense aside, I’m dumbfounded that a community turns on itself in violence and destruction. I’m bewildered by protests by people who are willing to protest but not have a conversation about the real issues. But I’m also left thinking I can’t possibly know the rage that people feel – rage I’ve never known or had reason to know.

I don’t know what it’s like to walk down the street and have strangers cross the street to avoid walking by me.

I don’t know what it’s like to be viewed with suspicion in a store – whether I can afford to be there or not.

I don’t know what it’s like to be viewed from afar, rather than engaged in conversation.

I don’t know what it’s like to be pulled over for driving in a neighborhood where I don’t live.

I don’t know what it’s like to be passed over for a job or promotion because of my name or the color of my skin.

I don’t know what it’s like to be viewed as a gang when two or more of my friends assemble.

I don’t know what it’s like to have a Jesus that is a different race from my own (even though Jesus probably was different from my own).

I don’t know what it’s like to have assumptions made, for better or worse, about my athletic ability or my interests.

I don’t know what it’s like to have my failures attributed to my race or income.

I don’t know what it’s like to have judgments made about me or my intentions based on my race, ethnicity, or religion.

I don’t know the limits of my gender or the color of my hair.

I don’t know the responsibilities of carrying a child or giving birth.

I don’t know that others struggle over things I take for granted.

I am a white male. I’m privileged. I live a life of white privilege. Governments, laws, social and religious institutions are designed to favor me and to oppress others.

But I also know I can’t pass judgment, and that I must understand all sides of a story/situation. I can’t know someone else’s reality or speak for others without knowing their story, their truth, and believing in their inherent dignity, made in God’s image. The Christ for which we await at Christmas is present in us, but he is also present in others, including those different from us. The heaven we seek will only be realized when we all understand this and work toward a just, diverse, inclusive society (world).

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Is the Catholic Church Self Serving?

Full disclosure: these thoughts have been on my mind for a while and don’t take into account whatever revelations church leaders might have had during a recent convocation on the subject of evangelization. I would note however, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati recently revealed a new mission statement: To preach the Gospel, bringing Jesus Christ to all people through Word and Sacrament.

I was recently in a conversation about youth ministry being a top priority for rejuvenating the church. The logic was that the youth and young adults are the future of the church and the church must do more to reach out and minister to them. The problem is that we’re too late. We can’t reach out to them because they’re already gone. Maybe we need to concentrate our efforts on younger children to keep them from leaving.

In recent years I’ve talked with young college graduates about their faith. One recurring theme I’ve heard is that catholic education (K-12 and college) spoon-feeds kids about religion. The disadvantage? They graduate and go on with their lives not having had to take ownership of their faith – to personalize it, to put it into action, to connect the dots. Sadly, for some, they stop trying in high school or earlier. Some even stop after they make their Confirmation.

Another sad thing is that there are many adults who feel the same way. But there is a generational difference. Some adults still attend mass. Perhaps it’s out of obligation. Perhaps it’s what they know. They go to church. That’s Catholic enough for them even though the rest of their lives may or may not reflect their faith. Interestingly many people believe that we need more lively liturgies to attract and retain young people. But to me, that’s only part of the equation. Being Catholic is more than attending a liturgy, lively or not.

Just last week, I passed a non-Catholic church several times. I saw members of the church painting its exterior. Then the light bulb went on for me. In our church we talk about stewardship of time, talent, and treasure. In one aspect, it’s always about service to the church, rather than outward. More about that later. From another aspect, even though we may contribute our time, talent, and treasure for the betterment of our church, our involvement stops there. We make our commitments. We may sign up to volunteer for something (that serves us and our kids, like scouts, sports, PTO, etc.). But from there, the money determines a parish budget. And within the budget we do something that many other churches don’t do. We don’t tend our grounds. We have a committee that sets priorities and then we pay maintenance people to tend our grounds. We have an education committee but then we expect “professional ministers” to form our faith lives. They’re the experts. We’re the passive recipients, spoon-fed just like in our childhood. We attempt small group discussions but we don’t form community. We discuss scripted topics and we answer questions the way we believe they should be answered. We pay professionals to run a school. Guess what, parents. You don’t need to form your kids. Leave it to the church. But parents aren’t paying for a faith based education- one in which they can actively participate. They are paying for a private education to avoid public schools. Some Catholic schools have more non-Catholic students than Catholic. I presume this is a problem for religion classes, sacraments, and school Masses (which seem to be on the decline). Do we even need all of these Catholic schools? If it was really about evangelization and formation in faith, we would consolidate and have regional Catholic schools. We wouldn’t have parish-based schools where the population of the parish can’t support the school yet the school makes up more than half of the parish budget.

And then there are special collections and envelopes. We love our special collections. Whether it’s for Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Social Services (via Catholic Ministries Appeal), or Saint Vincent DePaul, we give money to great causes. We pay other people to serve the poor on our behalf. In other cases (again CMA), we’re propping up the “institution” to support vocations, retirement plans, and all the overhead associated with paying other people to be the face and voice of Catholicism. There’s a place for administration and overhead. I get that. But what does it say about our priorities as Christians when all we keep doing is asking people for more money to support ourselves?

A lot of this is fresh on my mind, knowing the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is rolling out a program in parishes to strengthen the parish, Catholic education, vocations, retirement for priests, Catholic Charities and social services. I honestly don’t know much about it but it appears to be the current Catholic Ministries Appeal on steroids (and incentives for parishes). I find this incredibly ironic, given that Pope Francis has said the Catholic Church must be a poor church, serving the poor. Instead, what we appear to be about is serving ourselves and scrambling to sustain an institution that has not kept up with the signs of the times and has in fact turned people away rather than welcome them.

What I don’t see in such appeals, what I don’t see happening in our parishes (with some exceptions), what I don’t see happening with youth is the placing of any emphasis on the transformative role we play in the world. We can feel good about going to church (if the music and homilies are good). We can feel good about catechesis that tells us how to have a closer relationship with God. We can feel good about being encouraged to be more Christ-like in our daily living, in our domestic churches. We can feel good that non-Catholic kids attend our schools (especially if they’re paying more than us). We can feel good that the parish has a St. Vincent DePaul food pantry. We can feel good that our collections support an institutional response to people in need. We can feel good about what the church is doing for us.

But what are we truly doing for the church? What are we doing for our faith? What are we doing for the poor, oppressed, and disenfranchised? How are we as individuals and as parishes serving those in need in our own back yards and neighborhoods? Or across town? What are we doing not just to follow Christ but to be Christ? Are we doing things that we simply check off a list? Or are we embodying what it means to make Christ’s presence known in the world? Are we building the reign of God or are we paying lip service and writing checks?

Many people talk about evangelization in terms of going out, being sent. But to do what? Convert people? Or help people to encounter Christ? Are we going out to serve with a mission mentality?

Long ago, I heard an explanation of evangelization that has stuck with me. It was explained to me that evangelization happens at the intersection of three overlapping circles: Word, worship and service. We are taught the word. We listen to homilies and some go beyond and study/pray scripture. We have catechesis and formation programs. We have worship (some liturgies better than others). But what is often missing, besides the food pantry, casseroles taken to a shelter, and the occasional twinning relationship (across town or across borders), is service. We don’t think of our lives in terms of service. We don’t think of our parishes in terms of service. We don’t provide enough opportunities for service – ways for individuals, families, youth, young adults to experience their faith in action. We don't welcome strangers onto our grounds unless it's to attend a festival or bazaar. Granted, some people live lives of service: public service, teachers, ministers, etc. Some volunteer for any number of charities, without other parishioners even realizing it. But together, as Catholics, we don’t have an identity associated with service, unless it’s being done on our behalf by the agencies we fund; and, to the client, it’s just an agency providing a service.

We can have vibrant liturgies and we can be welcoming and hospitable until we’re blue in the face. But until we answer the question about how we make a difference in the world, how we serve others, and how we both encounter others and INVITE them in, we will continue to serve only ourselves.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Spirit of Hope

Today’s Mass readings are rich with suggestions for keeping the faith.

First is a wake-up call to remind us that we may suffer for doing good, which in God’s eyes is better than suffering for doing evil. In fact, we are reminded that Jesus suffered and died.

Second, we will be sent the Spirit, an Advocate. But it’s not the Advocate that I want to focus on. My attention is drawn to lines such as
"…the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept…"
"…he remains with you and will be in you…"
"…I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you…"
In Isaiah and in the Gospels, we’re familiar with another scripture passage which says, “the Spirit of God is upon me, he has anointed me…”

I never really thought about it until today but “upon” seems like an external force guiding us, whereas the phrase from today’s Gospel uses the word “in”.  

When I think of our relationship with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit it is refreshing to be reminded that all three dwell within us (not with, but within). We aren’t divine, but in our humanness we become co-creators of the world we live in. We, in our own ways, have a piece of the truth – the truth within us and the truth that we express. People may not like our truth but no one can take it away from us. And, as the second reading suggests, it is wise to be ready to give reason for our hope. God's presence within me is mine.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

May You Know Easter Joy

So as I prepare to go to Easter vigil, I'm feeling emotional about what will transpire. Jesus died and rose from the dead. Hallelujah! We are offered hope. But I'm also feeling emotional over the adult baptisms that will take place tonight - converts to Catholicism - people who want to follow Christ and live according to his teachings. It's a huge responsibility to follow Christ, to love as he did.

And then I see stories in the media (particularly online) of discrimination, hate, intolerance, bias, bigotry, and violence. I'm privileged to belong to an affirming faith community. However, as someone on the margins of society and the church my heart aches for others who don't experience God's unconditional love and acceptance.

This reflection is for them. It has served me well over the years. It is from John Fortunato's book, Embracing the Exile:

“Love them anyway?” I moaned. “But how?”
            “You begin by just being who you are,” God said, “a loving, caring, whole person created in my image, whose special light of love happens to shine on all, as I intended for you.”
            “Is that all?” I asked fearfully. God shook his head, “No, you must also speak your pain and affirm the wholeness I’ve made you to be when they assail it. You must protest when you are treated as less than a child of mine.”
            “Is there more?” I asked. “Yes,” God said gently, “and this is the hardest part of all. You must go out and teach them. Help them to know of their dependence on me for all that they really are, and of their helplessness without me. Teach them that their ways are not my ways, and the world of their imagining is not the world I have made. Help them to see that all creation is one as I am one and that all I created I redeem. And assure them by word and work and example that my love is boundless and that I am with them always.”
            “You know they won’t listen to me,” I said with resignation. “They’ll despise me. They’ll call me a heretic and laugh me to scorn. They’ll persecute and torment me. They’ll try to destroy me. You know they will, don’t you.”
            The radiant face saddened. And then God said softly, “O, yes, I know. How well I know.”
            I heard God’s words and something irrevocable changed inside me. I went numb. Now I knew. Now I understood. And it was as though large chunks of who I had been began falling away, tumbling through time and space into eternity. I just let them all fall. No fear now. No resistance. No sense of loss. All that was dropping away was unnecessary now. Extraneous.
            I began to feel light and warm. Energy began to surge through my whole being, enlivening me, as though I were a rusty old turbine that was charged up and was starting to hum.
            Then two strong, motherly arms reached out and drew me close to the bosom of all that is. And I was just there. Just being. Enveloped in being.
            And we wept. For joy.

May you know Easter joy.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Four Agreements

The following is a summary from the book The Four Agreements which I read in 2013. The book resonated with me and my views of the world, right relationship, putting out the kind of energy you want to get back, and more.

With all  the changes and resolutions people want to make for themselves for Lent, I thought this would be a good time to share these.

This summary is from the website:

Be Impeccable with Your Word
Speak with integrity.  Say only what you mean.  Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others.  Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.
Impeccable means “without sin” and a sin is something you do or believe that goes against yourself.  It means not speaking against yourself, to yourself or to others.  It means not rejecting yourself.  To be impeccable means to take responsibility for yourself, to not participate in “the blame game.”

Regarding the word, the rules of “action-reaction” apply.  What you put out energetically will return to you.  Proper use of the word creates proper use of energy, putting out love and gratitude perpetuates the same in the universe.  The converse is also true.

Impeccability starts at home.  Be impeccable with yourself and that will reflect in your life and your relationships with others.  This agreement can help change thousands of other agreements, especially ones that create fear instead of love.

Don't Take Anything Personally
Nothing others do is because of you.  What others say and do is a projection of their own dream.  When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of needless suffering.

We take things personally when we agree with what others have said.  If we didn't agree, the things that others say would not affect us emotionally.  If we did not care about what others think about us, their words or behavior could not affect us.

Even if someone yells at you, gossips about you, harms you or yours, it still is not about you!  Their actions and words are based on what they believe in their personal dream.

Our personal “Book of Law” and belief system makes us feel safe.  When people have beliefs that are different from our own, we get scared, defend ourselves, and impose our point of view on others.  If someone gets angry with us it is because our belief system is challenging their belief system and they get scared.  They need to defend their point of view.  Why become angry, create conflict, and expend energy arguing when you are aware of this?

Don't Make Assumptions
Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want.  Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama.  With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

When we make assumptions it is because we believe we know what others are thinking and feeling.  We believe we know their point of view, their dream.  We forget that our beliefs are just our point of view based on our belief system and personal experiences and have nothing to do with what others think and feel.

We make the assumption that everybody judges us, abuses us, victimizes us, and blames us the way we do ourselves.  As a result we reject ourselves before others have the chance to reject us.  When we think this way, it becomes difficult to be ourselves in the world.

Take action and be clear to others about what you want or do not want; do not gossip and make assumptions about things others tell you.  Respect other points of view and avoid arguing just to be right.  Respect yourself and be honest with yourself.  Stop expecting the people around you to know what is in your head.

Always Do Your Best
Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick.  Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

Doing your best means enjoying the action without expecting a reward.  The pleasure comes from doing what you like in life and having fun, not from how much you get paid.  Enjoy the path traveled and the destination will take care of itself.

Living in the moment and releasing the past helps us to do the best we can in the moment.  It allows us to be fully alive right now, enjoying what is present, not worrying about the past or the future.

Have patience with yourself.  Take action.  Practice forgiveness.  If you do your best always, transformation will happen as a matter of course.

For additional insights check out:

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

My Thoughts On Lent and some Marianist Virtues

Lent is a season of repentance and reflection ultimately calling us to remember that God loves us so much that he gave us his only Son to become human only to suffer and die for our salvation. We are saved. That’s what Easter is all about. What a blessing that is. We are blessed with grace and abundance and we are to be grateful.
Sometimes we are forgetful, or take things for granted. So while we should be mindful of God’s love every day, Lent especially gives us time and activities to change our hearts and minds with a focus on God. Through Lent, Christians observe fasting, prayer and almsgiving.
For fasting, we usually “give something up.” For some it seems like a punishment. For some it’s a remembrance that we have more than others. But the reality is that everything we have comes from God. And by giving something up, and focusing on the emptiness by asking God to fill it, we hopefully realize a new perspective on all things in our lives. We abstain from meat on Fridays for the same reason.
Prayer is another act reminding us of our reliance on God. Some people have a regular prayer life. For others it is random. Some don’t know how to pray. For beginners, here are some suggestions:

Almsgiving causes us to be mindful of the needs of others. Some practice almsgiving by donating to charity. Others contribute to organized causes by participating in programs that divert the money you would have spent on whatever you chose to give up. Whatever your practice, we are to remember that Christ didn’t just die for us, he died for us ALL. As he gave his life for all, we, at a minimum, can share with our brothers and sisters who are less fortunate.
Some people do all of the above. Some connect their prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Others do none of the above. Still others do some but not all. Some do one or another but also strive to simply be a better person.
Amid the primary practices, I’m one of those people striving to be a better person. But what does that mean?
Let me offer some concrete suggestions in the tradition of Marianist spirituality. They primarily challenge us to “give up” or “silence” the role our ego plays in our words and actions. These exercises can be transformational if they are part of ones prayer and reflective life and observed in one’s lived reality.

Think about these:

  • the virtue or silence of words— the awareness of the power of our words and deliberate use of words to communicate authentically, inspirationally and lovingly. We should silence our tongues when we don't have something nice to say.
  • the silence of signs—an awareness of our nonverbal means of communication. Eye contact, facial expressions, body language, etc. can say more than words. How do these nonverbals speak in a Christlike manner to others?
  • the silence of the mind— allowing ourselves to decrease so that Christ can increase. Imagine the positivity of our thoughts and life-energy if we were more focused on God’s will and less focused on our own desires and distractions, surrendering the mind but also making room in the heart.
  • the silence of our passions/emotions/feelings- we should restrain passion for evil so as to reinforce passion for good. Rather than giving in to indulgence, we find freedom in relying on God.
  • silence of the imagination—we are challenged to use our imagination to create images in our mind centered on Christ’s mission and our individual role in that mission. Our imagination that encourages us to act in ways contrary to our life in Christ should be silenced. Let go and let God.

As I think about the silences, I’m reminded of another spiritual path that has surfaced in recent years but is ancient in practice. From the book The FourAgreements:

  • Be Impeccable with Your Word
  • Don't Take Anything Personally
  • Don't Make Assumptions
  • Always Do Your Best

 More about The Four Agreements in the next post.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Acts of Charity are not Enough

Last week I attended the funeral of a Marianist Brother. He was a man who dedicated his life to serving God by serving others (like most priests, brothers, and sisters). Not bound by worldly possessions and obligations, he had the freedom to leave all behind to work in Africa for a number of years. He had the courage and stamina to work with AIDS patients in the US during the height of the AIDS crisis, when AIDS patients were outcasts treated like lepers. In his retirement he enjoyed tutoring inner city school children. He was a tireless advocate for the basic human dignity of all people.

I’m always touched by such humanitarian stories. I’m also challenged to ask myself if I am doing enough to help others, to ease their burdens and suffering, to make a difference in the world.

Lent starts this week and common themes, besides repentance, are the actions of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These actions are meant to change our hearts. They are habits that will hopefully put us in right relationship with God, man, and the world.

Perhaps more about Lent in another post.  For now, I’m left thinking about the following image I saw on Facebook last week:

Charity is necessary but it can’t stop there. We can address conditions but we must also ask why those conditions exist in the first place. And we must do something about them.

Charity is necessary but it can't stop there. If we remain silent, we become part of the problem.

But it’s not easy. For those who have not taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience all the above is a challenge. Of course, taking vows is challenging and is counter-cultural when we live in a society where individualism is rampant and success is measured by wealth and prominence. I'll always have a special admiration for vowed religious. But living humbly, as a lay person is equally counter-cultural when we have so much to lose – without the security of a religious community supporting us and encouraging our efforts. As a lay person, as much as I want to put others first or even live as simply as I can, I do that in the context of a relationship, family, and employment. I can volunteer. I can donate to charity. But am I willing to protest? To go to jail? To risk my own comforts? To risk my job? To take time to teach a man how to fish rather than just giving him a fish?

I’ll admit that I’m a closeted talk-radio listener. My heart breaks and I get angered every time I hear show hosts or their guests talk about how poor people are lazy and that all they want are handouts – that they can change their circumstances by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps or having the courage to leave the situations they are in. What people don’t understand is that systems are broken.  Just like I’m afraid to leave my comfort zone, so too do others get stuck in theirs. Only, for some, it’s worse. They don’t have the skills, role models or vision to recognize their own self worth, let alone understand the consequences of their choices. By broken systems, I also mean that societal structures exist that keep people from reaching their full potential. There are even well-intentioned programs that have unintended negative consequences. We don’t challenge those systems or try to change them. They are bigger than us. So we blame the poor for being in their situation rather than asking how they got there in the first place.  

I recently wrote a post about the difference between being Christ-centered and being Kingdom-centered. As a member of the Kingdom, of the human race, I feel I have an obligation to my fellow man and to the planet.  That obligation trumps financial wealth, prestige and success. It trumps corporate interests that are more about the bottom line than about the common good. It trumps being Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative. It trumps the notion that people who suffer at their own hands deserve to suffer. It trumps belief (or lack of) in climate change. We are called to care for one another and for the earth, not because they are ours but because they are not.

Finally, here are some thoughts about success that have been with me since high school. These words appeared in a full-page ad of all of my high school’s athletic program books. I hope that whoever’s idea it was knows that it made a difference.
Who has lived well, laughed often and loved much
Who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of children
Who has filled his niche and accomplished his task
Who leaves the world better than he found it-whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem or a rescued soul
Who never lacked appreciation of earth's beauty or failed to express it
Who looked for the best in others and gave the best that he had.