But what does that MEAN?

While I was preparing a talk called “Who is my neighbor?” recently, I learned that the Jewish law was laid out as a set of concrete guidelines to explain how it looks, in real world terms, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your heart, your soul, and your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Isn’t that interesting? Jesus is all over people in the Gospels for being too rigid and scrupulous about the Law, and Paul takes it to a whole new level. From that, modern Christians sort of naturally assume the Law was intrinsically flawed. But this made me realize the purpose of the Law was the same as what I’m doing here: to try to connect airy-fairy concepts of the faith to a concrete world.

The problem came when scrupulousness and rigidity about the precepts of the law caused people to judge others rather than love them.

I have two thoughts on this, and they’re kind of contradictory. On the one hand, I think the modern Church suffers from the same scrupulosity as ancient Jews. I know I have. Frankly, I think it’s more common among Catholics than we might think. What is Catholic guilt, if not an overwhelming anxiety to make sure we’re doing things RIGHT? And we judge everyone else for not doing the “right” thing. (Cough-cough-liturgy wars-cough-cough)

On the other hand, we tend not to recognize what the precepts of the faith actually mean in real life. All the big political issues of the day–abortion, guns, health care, immigration, race, etc.–looking at these through the radical call to love unconditionally should make all of us squirm, wherever we fall on the political spectrum. The love of money taking precedence over care of neighbor or creation. And so on. It’s like I said to my boys yesterday morning before school, when they were being nasty to each other: “All the religious formation in the world will do you no good if you can’t figure out what it looks like in real life!”

This is the question I leave us all with for the weekend: if showing love is how people will know I am a follower of Christ, HOW do I show love in this moment, this time, to this person I am encountering?

Talking Straight

I can’t stand conflict. But there’s something I loathe even more: when people who are upset with each other talk past each other instead of to each other. I’ve been harping on this for years in politics, but recently it’s come home to me that it happens an awful lot in places much closer to home.

There’s a relationship in my family’s life that is riddled with this dysfunction: you see a problem, you ask for an answer, and there’s either a complete lack of response, or the entity on the other side of the line issues its “message points” instead of answering the question. Is it any wonder that a person who approaches communication in good faith and gets message points in return ends up feeling, well, enraged?

Unfortunately, it’s a common dysfunction. I’ve come to believe it is the source of tremendous unnecessary angst and lack of peace in the modern world. As I ponder this, weighed down by the frustration and bewilderment that comes from beating your head on a brick wall you can’t avoid, I realize something else: we live in a world defined by fear and lack of trust. People use their message points because they’re afraid if they address the questions on the other side of a conflict openly and honestly, it’ll come back to bite them. They’ll get sued, they’ll get in trouble with their superiors, or whatever.

My whole life, I’ve been conditioned to look at the big picture, and so for years, when I ponder questions like this, I’ve gone straight to its impact on issues of global or at least national import. But everything big starts small. If protectionist passive-aggressiveness is what we as individuals face in interacting with individuals or local entities (and how often are we the guilty party?), then of course the larger world looks this way, too. It’s like those mosaics made up of hundreds of tiny thumbnails. One individual incident doesn’t change the world—but all together, they form a global pattern.

“Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no,” Jesus says. His context is different, but it applies all the same: Just lay it out straight. Don’t dance around. Be authentic and communicate in good faith.

What if changing the world could really be that simple?

**(Note: I did not say “easy.” I said “simple.”)**

Happiness is…

Doesn’t this resonate? Aren’t we all constantly hand-wringing about how busy we are? We feel victimized by the pace of modern life, as if it’s beyond our control. I remember when I was a kid, my parents were very busy running a farm, and we were all limited to one activity. Not one club and one sport, not one sport per season–one activity. Some of us really chafed at this limitation, but as an adult I see such grace and wisdom in this. We had time just to be. How many kids get that chance now?

For that matter, how many adults get that chance? How hard is it to find time to spend with friends?

We do it to ourselves. Maybe it’s that whole “restless until we rest in you” thing. I know my life is way more scheduled up than is good for me. Every single thing I do is a good thing, but there’s just so much of it. We as human beings don’t seem to be capable of moderation, do we?

Public Prayer and Religious Freedom

Image by Beverly Lussier from Pixabay

Every so often a meme goes around Facebook that riles up Christians about public prayer and religious freedom. It’s not always the same one, but the idea is the same: we Christians are persecuted, we should rise up and demand that America act like the Christian nation it is.

The problem is, America is not a Christian nation. Many of America’s first immigrants came here to escape religious persecution. That persecution was very much on the minds of those who set up the system of government. They structured America specifically so that nobody’s faith would get to knock down anyone else’s. Everyone gets the chance to worship as they see fit. Whether we as Godly people like it or not, that also means freedom FROM religion. Not having publicly-sanctioned prayer is not persecution. It’s simply a recognition that we are a nation built on religious liberty. No one’s prayer can be imposed on all.

We as Christians may not like that idea, but this is what makes America great. Because in fact, it’s a system that mirrors God’s own heart.

As the saying goes, God is a gentleman. He doesn’t force himself on us. When has it ever gone well for us to try to force him on others? The Crusades. The Inquisition. The suppression of native cultures. Every time we try to force God on others, we end up gravely sinning in His name.

Our job is to do as God does: invite.

Instead, I would argue that much of what we as Christians display publicly is not inviting at all. Inviting could mean different things in different situations, but surely the fundamental quality of one who invites is a joyful heart. A heart so welcoming and kind and compassionate and peaceful in spirit that others say, “Hey, I want some of that. How do I get it?”

Instead, so often we Christians display anger, resentment, bitterness, judgment, and attitudes of exclusion when faced with those in crisis situations. We focus on our own preferences and emotional comfort while turning a blind eye to inconvenient facts—like the fact that if my free expression of religion requires the suppression of someone else’s free expression of religion, then it really isn’t religious freedom at all.

Like the fact that if we were truly a Christian nation, we wouldn’t be looking for ways to avoid helping our neighbors in desperate need. (“Who is my neighbor?”) Like the fact that a truly Christian nation would prioritize making sure all its citizens have health care and equal opportunity in education. Would prioritize support for the poor, recognizing that poverty, lack of opportunity and inequality are factors that undercut our ability to build a holistic culture of life.

When we turn a blind eye to these realities (which admittedly are hard, complicated to navigate, and resist neat and tidy solutions) and instead let ourselves be manipulated into outrage over something that’s really not a threat at all, we damage our ability to evangelize. We alienate those we are meant to invite.

Power and Responsibility

As a mom of boys and accordingly well-steeped in superhero lore, I read these words and they automatically translate to those of Uncle Ben, in Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Responsibility to discern, to self-reflect, to make sure my actions beliefs –and when they don’t (as is true far more often than I’d like), to confess and vow to do better.

And again: although this is in the context of stewardship of the earth that keeps us alive, it applies across the spectrum of a lived faith.

Blessed Are the Meek

I’ve written about the Beatitudes twice now –one book for families with young children, and now the new book, aimed at helping adult Catholics examine our lives in concrete ways, using the Beatitudes as a guide. Both times, it’s required me to rethink how I look at certain words. “Meek,” for instance, is not a quality any of us particularly prizes. As a woman, striving to find my voice in this world in a both/and rather than an either/or way (professional AND mother-wife), I’m acutely conscious of my own tendency to avoid asserting myself–to give way to others. And then to be bitter and resentful about how others’ voices are amplified above my own.

It’s something women talk about a lot when we discuss how difficult it is to make a dent in the world: how we feel a need to subordinate our own priorities and skills and voices in favor of others. Men don’t feel this compulsion nearly as much as we do. My husband often wants me to be more assertive in professional situations. It is a constant struggle.

And so, as a woman, my first reaction to the word “meek” is to put up my claws and hiss. I don’t need any more of that, thank you very much.

But in praying about how to write this section of The Beatitudes, The Spirit whispered the bit of wisdom contained above. That nugget shaped the section of the book on meekness, framing it in a whole new way, free of the baggage I attach to it naturally.

I realize now that meekness–real meekness, not some pale, distorted earthly version–is a trait I will spend the rest of my life trying to master.

Simple Living

One of the things I love about Laudato Si’–and all the documents I am mining, in fact–is how lessons about the primary topic apply in so many other, seemingly unrelated, areas of life. Take this one. It’s about living more sustainably, but his point is that the chasing after the wind that is the consumption culture (new phone! Better streaming service! New clothes!) leads to being unsatisfied with life–skipping along the surface without ever really sinking into the moment. This resonates with me so deeply. It applies to the pursuit of physical goods as well as one’s reach and influence. You can imagine how much that topic preoccupies someone with an online ministry. Stats! Followers! Shares! Engagements! SEO!

But it also applies to being too busy, trying to gorge on everything on the buffet table of life instead of choosing and savoring. We all recognize this as a perennial problem we face in modern life.

Care of creation is up to us

When we (and by “we” I mean American culture–media, social media, etc.) talk about climate change, environmental stewardship, etc., we focus pretty much exclusively on policy: the Paris climate accord, rollbacks of protection initiatives, opening up preserves for drilling, etc. I remember when Trump first decided to pull us out of the Paris Climate Accord, I posted my “ways to be a good steward of the environment,” suggesting that if all of us examined our lives, we could still make a big difference ourselves. Someone I know poo-poohed the idea that we as individual people could have an impact.

But this clip from Laudato Si’ points out an uncomfortable truth: that it’s human nature (especially when profit is involved) to look for loopholes, to figure out how to be the exception so as not to have to do what is difficult, costly, or uncomfortable. Law, in other words, isn’t going to fix the problem of poor stewardship of the earth by itself. We as individuals have to step up and do our part.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean big, earth-shattering things. My family is saving for solar, but in the meantime, a big part of how we form our kids is a focus on reducing waste and initial consumption. Things as simple as those stupid party bags full of useless, disposable junk that you tend to get at birthday parties. Why? Every bit of that is going to end up in the landfill sooner rather than later.

Things like (and those who know me will say “oh here she goes again”) turning off the car when you’re waiting on kids, sitting in the grocery store parking lot, or checking your phone. There’s almost always an option–sitting under a shady tree when it’s hot; going inside when it’s cold. The vast majority of the time, the only reason to leave the car running is one’s own comfort/convenience. Comfort/convenience is one of the most insidious, invisible idols of modern life.

The increasing number and severity of natural disasters hasn’t yet touched *most* of the First World (though even here, we’ve had fires and superstorms and hurricanes). Acting like our daily choices are divorced from the greater good of the earth and those who shelter on this tiny oasis of blue in a vast universe is not a mark of true discipleship. Being a Christian means examining our daily choices–in other words, our habits–and being more intentional about them.

Good from evil

The news about the Amazon has had me very troubled lately; perhaps that’s why Laudato Si’ has been on my mind again lately. I went back to see what quotes I hadn’t used, and this seemed so universal, not just in relation to stewardship of the earth, it practically leaped off the screen.

Do something

This insight was a really monumental shift for me in my faith. I knew the truth of it, at least as it related to particular issues of importance, of course. But it was a big deal to realize that whatever ignites my righteous anger, makes me squirm, or breaks my heart in the news–those things are, in fact, a call to action from God, speaking through my conscience.

I recognize them now, though I’m far from perfect about the “doing something” part. Writing “The Beatitudes” reminded me of that every time I sat down to work on it.