The Unevenness of the Sin of Scandal

A few days ago, the Bible in a Year highlighted Eleazar’s martyrdom in 2 Maccabees. Eleazar was unwilling even to pretend to eat pork because what kind of message would that send to the next generation about God’s law?

Image by Hans via Pixabay

This is the “sin of scandal”— something I’ve heard about my whole life, but in that moment, in the midst of the election cycle where a whole bunch of politicians were courting Christian voters by telling flat out lies about stolen elections, I realized: We, as a Christian community, have a pretty big double standard about what constitutes the sin of scandal.

We’re very cognizant of it where the sin of scandal involves sex.

But there are a lot of other areas where it doesn’t even register, and if I name them, hackles will be raised. As I am sure they were in that second paragraph.

There are other issues, too. Environment, gluttony, and greed, to name a few. The issues I talked about last week.

And as for elections, after January 6, 2021, I wrote to my Senator who claims to be Catholic while loudly and stubbornly proclaiming clear falsehoods about stolen elections.

That is a sin of scandal, too. (And I told him so. Though I doubt his handlers even let him see the note. At least I tried.)

I hadn’t considered the sin of scandal for years, but having it highlighted resonated—and annoyed. Resonated because of course! I know for certain that there are people being driven away from God at this very moment by the sin of scandal in the political realm.

And annoyed, because when people talk about the sin of scandal, I suspect—in fact, in my jadedness I am certain (though I’d love to be humbled and proven wrong, truly)—that they are only thinking about sexual issues, while giving greed and dishonesty and selfishness at the expense of the future of humanity a total pass.

The call here is for us all to better examine our lives and recognize the disconnect between what we BELIEVE (in God terms) and what we believe (in world view terms). We’d all like to think those two are in lock step, but they aren’t. For any of us.

I have thoughts about that, too. I’m sure you’re shocked to hear. 🙂 But I’ll save that for next week.

A little less talk, a little more action

You know that saying: whenever you point a finger at someone else, four fingers are pointing back at you? (Well, it’s really three, as you can see, but…)

I think about that a lot in the context of Intentional Catholic. Anything I write, integrity forces me to turn back on myself, mirror-like.

I’ve been struggling through the Bible in a Year podcast… valuing it for the sake of hearing Scripture in a way that helps me grasp the historical context, but struggling because sometimes the commentaries really set me off. The one on Matthew 25—which is sort of the whole foundation of Intentional Catholic–pretty much gave permission for people to say “I’m clothing my naked children and feeding my hungry family. I’m covered.” In fairness, I do not believe that’s what he intended to convey, but it certainly does give tacit permission to ignore the plight of ACTUAL poverty and suffering.

Which is not to belittle feeding and clothing a family. I am up to the tips of my frizzy curls in caring for kids. It’s a real thing.

But it doesn’t negate our responsibility to the poor, marginalized, and vulnerable. First of all because keeping our kids fed and clothed is only a sliver of what keeps us so busy. The vast majority of what keeps us hopping is not essential. We could ALL cut back on some of our luxury and busy-ness and refocus some of that energy on the poor, marginalized, and vulnerable.

But as I sat there stewing and fuming over this, it occurred to me that me sitting in my house writing blogs and social media posts is not clothing the naked and feeding the hungry, either.

Here’s the thing. The conventional wisdom is that not everyone is called to everything. We are supposed to find what we, individually, are called to.

But I am an Enneagram 1, which means I’m very concerned with Getting It Right. For myself AND for the larger world. Enneagram 1s are deeply susceptible to scrupulousness. (Scrupulosity?)

The trouble is, when I, as an Enneagram 1, try to parse out what I feel most passionate about, I can’t do it. It all matters!

I have a child with a disability. Our health care system of access & payment is deeply dysfunctional and a burden on families.

My conscience stings every time I see a homeless person at an exit ramp. How dare we drive by, avoiding eye contact to preserve our own comfort? How dare people on my “Nextdoor” app call them “zombies,” as if these are not human beings with the same innate dignity as themselves?

I see the chaos and suffering that causes people in Central America to flee for the U.S.—and the way some people here villainize those who are desperate for the same security we treat as a divine right. How can I not be passionate about refugee and immigration?

I have godchildren and family members whose skin color will make them a target when they grow up. How can I not rail against those who deny systemic racism?

I had infertility that the medical community wanted to treat by slapping bandaids on it (birth control, artificial procedures) while ignoring the problems that caused it. We have a family because an NFP doctor took the time to find the root cause (PCO + agricultural chemicals in the water—how can I not be passionate about the environment?). So when I see how abortion is the symptom of a host of other problems that are systemic in our culture, how can I fail to rage at those who want to address the symptom while ignoring the causes?

I don’t know what my “one” issue is, because dang it, they’re all equally important. Thank you very much, Enneagram 1. But I can’t do everything. For years, I’ve been trying to learn to respect my limits, to create healthy boundaries.

But sooner or later you have to say “yes,” too.

So for now, I am working a shift at the Food Bank into my schedule, and exploring volunteer possibilities with Refugee and Immigration Services. Because at least there’s a known entry point there.

I am not going to stop talking. But I’m going to start mixing more action in with it.

Being Intentional About Care of Creation

Fires in the west. The slow and inevitable draining of the Colorado River. Floods in Mississippi and in Pakistan.

These are just a few of the effects of climate change in very recent history.

By now I think most of us recognize that human-caused climate change is not some made up thing. The frequency and severity of natural disasters are becoming so much worse, it’s hard to cling to denial anymore.

But the question is, what do we do about it?

Environmental stewardship has been a passion of my Christian life since my husband and I discovered that half of our long battle with infertility was caused by poor male fertility numbers stemming from diazanon, alachlor, and atrazine in the water supply. In case there are doubters here, we discovered this in backwards order. My husband encountered the study about the connection between low fertility numbers and these chemicals through his work as a science writer; then he went through testing and found he was the classic case; then we got a water filter and conceived within three months.

So I’m really tuned in to how we interact with creation. To be intentional about an area of faith means you have to examine how your actions do (or don’t) reflect what you think you believe. We wash and reuse plastic Ziploc bags. Watch the weather so we can pull the house temperature down to 65 on cool mornings and then close it up, thus minimizing the need for the air conditioner. Etc.

What makes me want to pull my hair out is the thoughtlessness surrounding creation that I see around me.

Every time I pull into Jazzercise, or Ace Hardware, or Target, or church, I see someone sitting in their car with the car running while they’re scrolling their phone. Every time. Sometimes I have even seen people get INTO their car, turn it on, and THEN pull their phones out. Why? It has nothing to do with the weather, because it happens in perfect weather as well as bad.

School pickup is even worse. People queue up beginning 25 minutes before school dismissal, and they will sit there running their cars the entire time. Not everyone—it’s improved over the years, thank God—but it’s still pretty bad. I used to go over to school after noon Jazzercise and wait until school let out—a deliberate choice, made to combine trips and reduce gas consumption. I’d bring my laptop and work remotely.

But every afternoon, when I pulled into a shady spot at 1:30 p.m., there was a guy in a huge white pickup truck who LEFT IT RUNNING FOR HOUR AND A HALF. This is a person who is ostensibly Catholic,  a religion that values stewardship of creation.

None of these people are horrible human beings who care nothing for the earth and the life and health of future generations. Chances are, it’s just never occurred to people to examine what they’re doing. We are creatures of habit.

And yet the wellness and dignity of future generations—not to mention ourselves—is compromised by such ongoing and habitual abuse of the earth. How much carbon could we cut if we just turned off the cars when they don’t need to be running?

So this is my invitation for today. First, turn your car off! At long stoplights (you know where they are), while you’re at soccer practices or piano lessons, and above all when all you’re doing is checking your phone.

And second, to examine your days and routines for small but concrete ways you can show more reverence for creation through the way you use and interact with the things of the earth.

And feel free to share any of those here. I always like to get new ideas.

* All the photos in this post are pictures I took on my nature rambles in the last 6 weeks. This is the earth we are trying to protect, because it is how we live, and because look at the gift it is to us!

The problem with Christmas is not “happy holidays”

I don’t know if it’s because I’ve scrubbed my social media feeds or if the ruckus really has died down, but this year I’m not seeing as much about the so-called “war on Christmas.”

I did see one thing, though, as part of a different conversation with someone I love. It was a forward of an email from the Catholic League, which began by condemning that disgusting gun Christmas card Twitter photo from someone who has power in America. I’ll give no more details than that, because that person deserves no amplification.

So the email started in the right place. But it went on to decry the “dumbing down” of Christmas. The corruption of Christmas is, indeed, a huge problem. But the author got the source all wrong. His highlighted example was Christmas cards that don’t say Merry Christmas.

Really???????

Isn’t the ACTUAL problem with Christmas that capitalism has erased Christ and turned it into a moneymaking scheme??????

Hence my illustration this morning.

This is one week’s worth of trash and two weeks’ worth of recycling for a family of six in the holiday shopping season.

Dragging it all outside, I thought, “And Christian culture thinks ‘happy holidays’ is the problem??????”

It feels hypocritical to write this out. The majority of those efficiently-nested boxes are there because we ordered them. The second trash bag is full of styrofoam packing. Normally we only put out 2/3 of a bag of trash a week. (I have no idea how so many households of two and three people put out 3, 4, or 5 bags of trash a week. Where is it all coming from? Even when we were in diapers we didn’t fill a bag a week.)

I don’t like that I’m caught in this consumeristic view of the holiday. Of course, I love giving gifts to my children—as any good parent does. What brings joy to our children brings joy to us.

But it seems so odd to me that when we as Catholics are in the season of Advent, a time ostensibly devoted to simplifying our lives and letting “every heart prepare him room,” what we’re actually doing is piling on more, more, more. Cluttering things up. Both physically and mentally.

Come to think of it, I’ll bet there’s a clear reason Christian culture is so desperate to find a scapegoat that they’ll chase after Christmas cards that don’t say “Merry Christmas”:

Otherwise, we’d have to admit that everything that’s wrong with Christmas, we did to it ourselves.

Open My Eyes…

I launched Intentional Catholic with the story of how the birth of my daughter, who has Down syndrome, turned my world upside down and made me see the relationship between faith and the real world in a whole new light.

You need a little upheaval every once in a while in your life to show you where your blind spots are. Celiac disease is doing this to me all over again.

In the past three(ish) weeks, I’ve realized how little attention I have spared for people with dietary restrictions. To be perfectly blunt, I’ve never taken it very seriously. I mean, I get the peanut thing. The shellfish thing. But a lot of other things I’ve regarded with a certain skepticism.

Of course, if someone has a dietary restriction I will accommodate it. But usually with some inner sense of, “I’ll do this to be courteous, but I’m not entirely convinced this is really a thing.”

Putting that in words makes me cringe, now that I’m on the other side of it.

It never occurred to me—despite hearing about it for years–how thoughtless we are about food. Everything’s got corn in it. In our case, everything’s got gluten in it: Chicken broth. Soy sauce. Taco seasoning. Breakfast sausage. (MEAT? REALLY?!?!?!?!?!)

The insistence of the Church—it’s in canon law, even!–about having to have gluten in Eucharistic hosts is just one more indication of how completely blind we are to anything that lies outside our western European culture blinders.

People with food allergies have a really sucky situation in our world, because we’ve developed a food culture that’s inflexible, crawling with cross-contamination and people like me three weeks ago, who shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, if you can’t have gluten, just don’t eat it, even if that means 98% of the food we have at this gathering is off limits. Here’s your ONE gluten-free option.” It’s a level of self-absorption I didn’t think myself capable of anymore, and learning what it feels like on the other side has been another bruising collision with the mirror.

I met a woman this weekend who was telling me that someone in her professional realm has been asked for years to bring her own food to parties, because they weren’t willing to provide gluten-free accommodation themselves. And now that they’re feeling ashamed of themselves for that level of un-hospitality, and are trying to do something about it, they’re discovering just how incredibility difficult it is to accommodate.

I have been listening to a podcast lately called “Why Can’t We See?” It’s an ecumenical trio of contemplative Christian pastors (one of them is Fr. Richard Rohr) who are exploring the biases that prevent all of us from seeing as God sees. I guarantee you will hear more about this podcast… it’s INCREDIBLE… but for now I want to draw out one of those biases: CONTACT bias. In other words, we don’t give credence to issues unless we get to know people who are impacted by them. We dismiss their pain until we love someone who fits whatever label we’re talking about. (Muslim. Democrat/Republican. Black. Gay. Disabled. You get the idea.)

One we do love a person in a label like that, it changes how we view the issues.

The truth of this bias is VERY clear to me in this holiday time, as our family is learning to navigate celiac disease for my daughter. I care about this issue now, when a few months ago, I wouldn’t have wasted a moment thinking about it, let alone doing anything.

There’s an action item in there. For me, for you. For all of us. It should be a wakeup call that Christian hospitality is way, way bigger than we have ever allowed it to be, and the prayer to open our eyes is not a metaphysical one, but a real, practical, rubber-to-the-road one.

Networking ≠ Fraternity

Background image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

WOW. Isn’t this the truth? Hasn’t the truth of this been smeared all over Facebook and Twitter the last, well, a long time, but especially the last four to five years?

The context of this quote (which actually comes from one of Pope Francis’ homilies) is how the global economy has been trying to remove “human costs,” and to rely on free market to keep everything “secure.” The pandemic, he says, makes it clear that we have to worry about people again. At the end of the paragraph he talks about rethinking lifestyle and relationships–which is something we all experienced this past spring–and also societal organization, ending with a call to rethink the meaning of life.

The social quality of personal property

I know this is kind of a long quote to process, so let me rephrase it to clarify why it struck me so forcefully. If we forget that our personal property has a “social dimension,” we’ll end up making an idol of it, making it all about ME and what I want. Getting resentful at the suggestion that the “social dimension” exists at all.

And when that happens, it’s easy for people to say, “See? This system of private property is corrupt. It doesn’t serve the common good.”

In other words, if we are too grabby about what’s MINE, it’s going to give people ammunition to suggest that the whole system is flawed.

The writers were undoubtedly thinking of giving ammunition to communism when they wrote this, but given the unpardonable and growing disparity between rich and poor these days–underscored by who gets COVID and who doesn’t; who has to put themselves at risk to go do low-income “essential” labor while the rest of us work safely from home–it seems like a pretty spot-on reminder for our day and age, too.

Small Sacrifices

Background image by Public Domain Images, via Pixabay

It’s been a hard slog, the last couple of months. Although Memeland USA has tried to lighten the mood by joking about it (my personal favorite was a picture of Doc and Marty, with the words “First Rule of Time Travel: Never go to 2020!”), the humor is only an attempt to bleed off some of the stress. Some among us are struggling financially because of lost income. Some because of the stress of illness or death–coronavirus-related or not–in a time when families can’t even gather to grieve. Some because mental health is hard to maintain in a time of anxiety and isolation.

That last was the struggle for me and my household. It took us a full month to get our equilibrium–which I achieved partly by counseling, partly by a 100% withdrawal from all news sources. And prayer, of course, but prayer guided me to those real-world solutions. Prayer is rarely a fix-all on its own. In prayer, God guides you to what *else* you need. God is the creator of science and psychology, after all.

I still have to be vigilant about mental health in certain quarters in my family, but I know we had it pretty easy compared to others. My Facebook feed is filled, top to bottom every day, with evidence that more people are still struggling than not.

I’ve started dipping a toe back in the news now, and the vehemence and acrimony of the protests against stay-at-home orders and masks are really striking. I heard a report this morning that in Stillwater, Oklahoma, a man threatened a business owner with a gun because he didn’t like the citywide requirement to wear a mask inside businesses. I mean, really? REALLY??

Full disclosure: I’m a flute player. Wearing a mask makes me feel like I’m suffocating. But I’m wearing them anyway, not when I’m outside, but when when I go to the grocery store or the hardware store. Why? Because I trust the medical authorities who say this is one small sacrifice we can make for the greater good.

That news story this morning just blew my mind. I don’t know what that man’s beliefs are. What I can say for certain is that his actions show a lack of respect for life and the Gospel. The Christian call is about self-emptying, about placing others’ needs ahead of our preferences.

And that’s my point for today. The whole point of being “intentional” about the faith is to take it out of the realm of the vague generalizations. It’s easy to talk in general about self-emptying, but the real test is what happens when you’re asked to make a sacrifice for others. Especially when you’re already struggling with loss of income or freedom of movement or mental health or loved ones.

For years, we in the religious community have criticized American culture for being hedonistic, for the idolization of instant gratification and “me, me, me.”

Those are totally just criticisms.

But the response to this pandemic shows that hedonism, instant gratification, and “me, me, me” is just as much a problem among religious people. (How many of those signs demanding an end to stay-at-home orders invoke God?)

This pandemic is nothing if not a series of opportunities to make sacrifices. When I think of people in Italy and Spain, who weren’t even allowed outside (because where would they go without encountering others?), it is abundantly clear to me that my stay-at-home order, which allows for biking and hiking and playing outside and taking walks in the neighborhood and going to the grocery store and on and on and on, is really a *very* small ask for the health of the community.

And now, as my community begins to open up–today, in fact–the discernments are going to get more complex. With schools and businesses closed, there wasn’t really anywhere to go, anyway. We had no choice but to honor the greater good by staying home.

Now, we have to start learning a new balance, because as important as “flattening the curve” was, economic motion is vital to the community, too.

But we can’t be cavalier about it. To be a Christian in this new reality means we have to think, rethink, and rethink again. All the rules and rituals we take for granted have to be re-examined. How do we best balance the safety of the community and the need to slowly expand exposure to this new virus, against the need to get the economy moving again so that everyone can regain the dignity inherent in work?

It’s inevitable that for the foreseeable future, we’re all going to have to give up things we’d like and deny ourselves things we’d like to do on our own schedule, but which now have to be planned around the greater good. It’s not going to be fun.

But we can view this as an invitation to grow in faith and holiness–by self-emptying, by doing the things we don’t like for the greater good.

To Live With Abundance

How many times have I read this Scripture passage and never noticed before? I always stopped with learning how to live in humble circumstances. Why on earth would there be anything to learn about living with abundance?

But there is. When you live with abundance, there’s more temptation: temptation to hoard; temptation to resent the imposition when the call of the Gospel means you have to let others have more of “your” wealth; temptation to get priorities out of whack and give too much importance to wealth and its trappings; temptation for preservation of wealth to become the deciding factor in every discernment.

It’s a huge temptation on a personal level that simply doesn’t exist if you have nothing. When you have nothing, there’s little moral dilemma surrounding money.

This also really resonates at the policy level. In America, there’s a lot of “temptation for preservation of wealth to become the deciding factor.” Virtually everything in American politics is a money-first discussion. It doesn’t matter if it’s right; it only matters if one side or the other sees an initiative as a an economic boon or difficulty. We renegotiate trade deals in our favor, even if the only way they can possibly be honored is for us to get more and someone else to get less. We decide environmental policy by cheapness and the perception of preserving status-quo jobs rather than by the damage to the earth and the ripple effect that will have on future generations. The foundation of discussions of health care is not the fact that it’s a basic need of human existence, but instead how much it’s going to cost, as if cost, rather than need, is the primary question.

We have abundance in America, but we haven’t figured out how to live with it. Not well, at least.

Scrupulousness

A few years ago, I’d never heard the term “scrupulousness.” My mother introduced me to it when I wrote a series on my personal blog about my struggles with anxiety. Now I think of it all the time–though simply recognizing it is a big step toward battling it.

I tend to view it as a sin, although a web search this morning seems to indicate that it’s more a cross to be borne. But I think Catholics in general are particularly susceptible. I would argue that scrupulousness is a big part of “Catholic guilt.”

Once I was sensitized to this tendency in myself, I saw it cropping up all over the place. It may not be a sin, but the inevitable fallout of scrupulousness is a rush to judge anyone who doesn’t share whatever I think is the right way to look at the world, and to place rigid expectations on others that constitute a heavy burden on people prone to scrupulousness–which, as I said, I think is many of us.

I would argue that scrupulousness plays a big part in a lot of the no-compromise fights we have within the Church–the political ones, yes, but also the liturgical ones (and many others). Most recently it’s struck me in the arguments about texts of liturgical songs–an assumption that because I read a particular text fragment in a certain way, a song is inarguably heretical, even though thousands of other people may find great spiritual benefit in it, and great potential for growth in holiness, because they don’t interpret that text fragment the same way I do.

For a long time, because I myself was very conservative and all my scrupulousness was about doing the right things (which were always conservative values), I thought scrupulousness was only a problem conservatives have. As I got better at combating my own scrupulousness, I began to move to the center, and that seemed to confirm my assumption.

But I was wrong. These days I am more likely to suffer from scrupulousness about environmental issues. It’s never enough. And I am VERY judgy about other people’s lack of environmental stewardship.

But the example that sparked this post was this: In the midst of my great world view shift, a quote kept cropping up over the course of months–I can’t find it anymore, but it was something like, “Your money doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to the poor.” It was attributed to a pope. No arguing with that!

The obvious conclusion to draw from this quote is: anything I do to save money is a sin. I have no right to enjoy the things of the world as long as poverty exists. I should never go out to a nice dinner, I should never take a trip to see the wonder of the world, I should never own jewelry–because as long as people are suffering, “my” money doesn’t belong to me. Also, I pointed it at conservatives who don’t like taxes.

It was a big struggle. I told myself that religious figures exaggerate to shock their listeners into doing something for the poor. But that didn’t help, because of who we hold up as the ideal of Christianity: Francis of Assisi and Katherine Drexel, rich people who did give away everything they had; Mother Teresa, who lived in abject poverty for decades; the fact that to this day, a lot of religious orders take a vow of poverty. A papal quote + the body of evidence of what the Church holds up for honor made it hard to draw any other conclusion than the Church intends us to be poor rather than rich.

Even Robert Barron used that quote once.

I tried for a long time to find the exact verbiage, but couldn’t find it anywhere. Then one day, someone attributed it to Rerum Novarum #22. Finally! I went to look it up.

Guess what? Rerum Novarum 22 does NOT say I am obligated to give every single penny I don’t absolutely need for my bare survival to the poor. Here’s what it actually says:

True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, “for no one ought to live other than becomingly.”(13) But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. “Of that which remaineth, give alms.” (14)

Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 1891

(Note the date: eighteen ninety-one. This is not some uber-modern corruption of the Gospel. Note 2: the footnotes refer to the Summa theologiae and to Luke 11:14.)

Now, it’s important to recognize that this quote doesn’t give us a free pass to hoard money or to try to avoid paying taxes; it does NOT give us a free pass to store up wealth for our own pleasure, or for passing it on to kids, or whatever. The actual quote–like virtually everything the Church puts in writing–is nuanced to recognize the complexity of competing needs and factors. What this quote requires of us is that we discern honestly, prayerfully, what it means for us to “keep up becomingly” our condition in life.

It’s also worth noting that St. Basil the Great is a little more blunt on the topic of our responsibility to the poor:

(Note: I have not checked that quote, for what it’s worth.)

In the end, we all have to wrestle, to try to find a balance between enjoying with gratitude the good things of the earth (which are, after all, made by God), and hoarding the wealth that allows us to do so, thereby sinning by not helping those who suffer.