Falling Down or Tripping Up?

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I’ve been trying to write this post for a while, but I can’t seem to come up with a hooky opening. (Or title.) Maybe that means there isn’t one. Maybe I just have to write it and hope you’ll all read it, even without a hook.

During a discussion of Henri Nouwen’s “Life of the Beloved” a year or two ago, I had this moment in which God pried my brain open and I understood something so liberating, it was almost dizzying.

My whole life, I’ve looked at sin as falling down in a pit of muck.

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But in that moment, I had a vision of sin as tripping over rocks while hiking up a steep mountain with a glorious view at the end.

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Most of the time, we talk about sin as a huge, inescapable reality: a systemic failure to which we’re inevitably and forever doomed as part of our humanity. We can fight it and fight it, but we’re always going to get dragged down into that muck again, because that’s who we are.

It had never before occurred to me to look at discipleship and the Christian life as a lifelong hike up a beautiful mountain whose pinnacle is Heaven. Of course you’re going to get tired along the way. Of course you’re going to slip and trip. Mountain climbing involves rocks and uneven ground.

The difference between these two perspectives is profound. In one, we view ourselves as mud dwellers. It’s our natural state of being.

In the other, we view ourselves as good people seeking to be better. Even when we trip and fall, we get up and keep going. Notice I didn’t say “get up and try again,” as if we’re running on a treadmill sunk in the mud and will never be anywhere other than in the mud.

No. I said we get up and keep going. We acknowledge that we fell down, but we brush ourselves off and keep heading for the heights.

This is a tremendously liberating thought. It takes away the hopelessness of sin. I still recognize my need for mercy—the fact that tripping on the way up the mountain doesn’t get me kicked off the mountain is a grace I can never fully comprehend. On Earth, after all, tripping up is routinely used as grounds for getting kicked out.

But because I belong to God and God is my end point, sin doesn’t have to define me. I can see myself as beloved. As worthy of receiving mercy. I can see hope for getting farther up the mountain, closer to God.

And if I see myself this way, I can learn to see others this way, too.

If I see myself and everyone else basically as mud dwellers, then Pope Francis’ quote makes no sense.

We Christians have a tendency to take an all-or-nothing view of things. When we see what we perceive to be weeds growing in the field, we filter out any fruit those people might be bearing. If the fruit is being produced by someone who doesn’t look like we think Godliness is supposed to look, we don’t want it, thank you very much.

But “weedy” people have gifts and wisdom and worth to offer, too. Thank God, nobody has to be perfect to have a place in God’s Church. And if we go around making a big list of things you have to do to be “good enough” to belong, then we’re driving away the people we’re supposed to bring to Christ.

And who’s to say that one of these days, that “weedy” person won’t be the one offering us the hand up on that steep, difficult climb toward God?

Imperfect, but Okay? Really?

†

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This quote first struck me because it doesn’t make sense. I have a garden. And a lawn I’ve recently reseeded. If I see a weed, I grumble a LOT. In fact, I’ve been going outside lately and pulling crabgrass out of my lawn, in a nod to complete futility. I do not see the swath of green, I see the weed. I see the imperfection.

In this one area, at least, we’re consistent in how we handle the physical and the spiritual world. We are not willing to tolerate imperfections in expressions of faith, either. It’s got to be all or nothing, and the problem is that the more we cling to that, the more people choose “nothing.”

A few years ago, someone asked me for advice on convincing a reluctant spouse to embrace Natural Family Planning. I, in turn, asked advice from a friend, who said, “Tell them to practice NFP. It’s about practicing. You do the best you can. You’re going to screw up. Just keep practicing.

This was a real brain-stretching thought for me. To me, NFP was an all or nothing prospect. You do it or you don’t. It had never before occurred to me that maybe something so challenging and outside the cultural norm is, by definition, going to be done badly (and here I don’t mean mistakes in applying the method, I mean spiritual choices) and with lots of spiritual mistakes on the way to doing it well. Like practicing the piano, or the violin. You’re bad before you’re good, but that doesn’t make the effort any less laudable or worth undertaking.

Why have we never thought about the spiritual life this way?

My brain is exploding with thoughts on this, but I’ll leave it there for today and take up the question again after the weekend.

To Love Is…

Since the Church considers this quote important enough to be underscored in the Catechism, I thought it deserved a graphic of its own, even if I did already write a whole post on the topic. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, right?

Love Is A Concrete Thing

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Tell me if this sounds familiar: you tell a kid to put away a piece of clothing, and ten minutes later you look and discover it hasn’t been done. You tell them to do it again, and this time it makes it up the stairs and gets dumped on the floor. By the third time, you’ve pretty well lost your temper, and it’s all downhill from there.

This is my life right now: dishonesty, serial disobedience, and difficulty discerning how much is developmental and how much is spacey personality versus testing behavior. My husband reminds me we’ve been through it before and we’ll get through it this time, but it’s wearying.

Why does this warrant a blog post on a site about living the faith?

Because I’m starting to recognize that this parenting issue has a lot to teach us about love—real, self-giving, sacrificial love. How can we teach such a big concept to our children without starting with small, intimate relationships and small—maybe even petty—examples?

Little kids experience the world in concrete ways, after all. I need my child to learn that love doesn’t just mean cuddles and kisses and being tucked into bed at night and giving me a hug on the way out the door. That’s a tiny child’s version of love, but as they grow, they need to learn that a bare minimum, love means you don’t do things that harm the other.

And since Jesus Christ was never in the business of bare minimum, I’d go a step further and say, as the Catechism says: love means willing the good of the other.

So your actions show your love—or the lack of it.

To wit: if you cause your favorite parent to LOSE HER EVER LOVING MIND because you just don’t feel like doing what she asked you to do, then you’re causing harm and you’re definitely not willing the good of said parent.

In other words: NOT. LOVE.

Okay, it’s petty, I know. But really, if you start spinning out the implications, this is a big deal, and not just for the kiddos, but for us as adult Catholics.

Because if:

a) everyone is our neighbor (Luke 10:29-37), and

b) loving God means loving our neighbor (Luke 10:27-28; Galatians 5:14), and

c) love means willing the good of others (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1766)…

…then we’d darned well better be thinking about willing the good of asylum seekers at the southern border.

And about how to alleviate the strain on of living on women who see abortion as their only option.

And how to erase discrimination (which might mean, for a start, acknowledging that it still exists).

And what it means to steward the earth God gave us for future generations.

And how to create policies that put the good of workers and society before personal or corporate profit.

And how to protect victims of abuse and assault, rather than shame them and blame them and assume they’re lying for underhanded political reasons.

Because with every word we speak about those issues and every policy solution we advocate (or fight against), we show our love for Jesus Christ.

Or the lack of it.

Get Involved

“But I’m too busy…” It’s always about busy-ness, isn’t it? Which means, actually, it’s about my priorities. Am I so caught up in “things of the world” that I haven’t carved out time to serve God? God gave me these hands, these feet, this voice. How am I using them for him?

It’s a balancing act I know I’ll never get 100% right…but I have to keep working at it.

Are We Doing Our Job?

A few weeks ago, I read a biography of Dorothy Day. That book sparked a lot of thoughts, which I’ll go into at some point, but this quote made me think of it today, because Dorothy actually baptized her daughter before she became Catholic herself. Her struggle was the contradiction between the power of the Church’s teachings on social justice and the reality of Catholic communities whose focus was Bingo and card games. Community building is important, but so is going out and doing the work of the Kingdom, and that work is a lot more challenging and less fun.

Within the pastoral music community, periodically someone brings up a point that never fails to make me squirm: if your choir is just singing on Sundays, you’re not really doing your job. Is your music ministry reaching out? Working food banks and soup kitchens? Helping at crisis pregnancy centers? Joining in interfaith service events?

Once a year, after Christmas, my choir puts on a concert to benefit a charity. So we’ve done step one. But this Scripture is a pinprick to my conscience, reminding me that my community (whether that means my choir or my parish) is not supposed to be insular. What has been given to me is supposed to overflow to others.

The fruit of the Spirit

Image by Bruno Glätsch from Pixabay

In today’s Gospel, Jesus talks about false prophets and urges us not to trust too easily. “By their fruits you will know them,” he says. Bishop Barron’s accompanying reflection referred that back to the fruit of the spirit. (Item: an editor once pointed out that it’s not “fruits,” plural, but “fruit,” as in: a single fruit with all these facets. I had never noticed that before.)

What struck me this morning was that it sounds great to say “by their fruits you will know them,” but discernment is harder than it looks. We all produce fruit both good and bad. We can be incredibly generous in certain situations (natural disasters) and appallingly stingy in others (homeless people at intersections). We can be generous in thought, giving the benefit of the doubt to some (many within our close sphere of influence), and yet we leap instantly and irrevocably to the worst conclusions about whole groups of people (the assumption that asylum seekers are freeloaders and/or criminals; the assumption that immigration opponents are racists).

The fruit of the spirit is distinctly lacking in our public discourse today, and I don’t just mean the leadership. It’s on us, too. Is there a single one of those facets that we do not see violated daily on both sides of every debate? There are real problems in the world, real things to be angry about, but when we indulge the worst that is within us, we dump fuel on the fire instead of working toward the Kingdom. (This is one of the topics I discuss in my new Beatitudes book.)

Today’s reading is a reminder that a prophet who does not seek to manifest the fruit of the Spirit can and will be dismissed, no matter how true the message. It’s a personal challenge to each of us to shape up, and an equally difficult one: not to give our leaders a pass, either.

On Sarcasm, Mercy, and having your conscience walking around in the body of a six-year-old

In 2016, I wrote a series of posts called “Mercy on a Monday” for my personal blog. Many of them are just as applicable today as they were then, so I’m mining my archives to share here.

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It didn’t take long for this list of ways to live out the year of mercy to nail me between the eyes:

1) Resist sarcasm; it is the antithesis of mercy: “”Set, O Lord, a guard over my mouth; keep watch, O Lord, at the door of my lips!” (Psalm 141:3).

Um…ouch.

Sarcasm is the cloak I wear at certain times of the month. It is my instant response to being asked a) stupid questions, b) questions I’ve already answered, and c) stupid questions I’ve already answered.

It’s also my instant response when a political candidate gets on my nerves (daily, at a minimum), when a driver does something I don’t like, or a piece of technology causes me inconvenience. And it’s always aimed at the people behind those irritants, who should have been smarter and more polite than to bother Almighty Me.

I’m a word pictures kind of girl, and in the past month, mercy has come to be associated with something soft and cool, pliable, able to bridge the gap between square pegs and round holes. Sarcasm, on the other hand, is a hard, hot slap in the face. It raises hackles and solidifies them into brick walls. It makes both parties hard and unforgiving (in every sense).

Sarcasm is demeaning to others. It excoriates the soul and causes sensitive people to retreat into themselves. It shuts down communication. It might be funny, but the laughter only makes the belittling and the soul scouring feel even more belittling and soul scouring. It feeds bad feelings on both sides: self-hatred on the part of the victim and self-righteousness on the part of the one who doles it out.

It can be death on a marriage, in particular, and cause real pain to children, who only want to be loved, even when they’re completely clueless how to express that need appropriately.

Resist sarcasm; it is the antithesis of mercy.

I read those words and instantly vowed to change. And just in case there was any doubt that this was what I was called to do, the Holy Spirit gave me a big wakeup call the next day. It was in the van on the way home from school, and my mini-me responded to his little brother with blistering sarcasm, his tone dripping with contempt. It cut me to the soul, instantly and so profoundly that I even remember where we were on the route.

Because this is my fault. I’ve taught them this.

I don’t remember what I said. I do know it was not a scolding; it was heartfelt and involved confessing my own fault in the matter. I told them part of what I was doing for the year of mercy was to quit being sarcastic.

The car was quiet for a few moments, which, if you’ve ever had three, four, five, or six kids in the car (as I do on a regular basis–am I not lucky?), you’ll know is no small thing.

You know that old saying about how parenthood means having your heart walking around outside your body?

Well, I think God gives you children in order to make sure you have a conscience walking around in someone else’s body, commenting out loud on your foibles. In this case, the body of my six-year-old.

“Mom, are you being sarcastic?” my child will ask me.

“Um…yes, I was. I’m so sorry, honey. You’re right.”

“Mom, I think that was sarcastic!”

“We-ell, that was sort on the edge. It was more like a joke.”

It’s been good for me. It’s making me stop and think before I share the effervescence of my own wit.

I don’t like it. But I can feel the difference. I’m not so angry, so volatile, like a pump primed and ready to react to the slightest provocation. The inside of my chest feels a little cooler and settled, more relaxed, more open. It feels like growth. And that is, after all, what I’m going for, in this year of mercy.

The “unruly freedom of the word”

I find this quote really striking, because human nature, especially in this day and age when we face too much information at all times, is to try to boil everything down, put it in categories and boxes so we can process it and feel safe with it. And whenever something defies those artificial limitations, we feel really threatened. Threatened to the point where we reject it, even if it’s the movement of God, because it doesn’t fit where we think he’s supposed to be.

On the other hand, yesterday’s first reading, from 2 Corinthians, scolded us for how quickly we substitute artificial Jesuses for the real one. It made me squirm. Well, first it made me feel pretty righteous, because I was aiming it outward at others. (You know you all do it, too.) Then realized it could easily point at me as well. And I had a bit of disorientation, thinking about the specific instances I was considering in light of that Scripture. I wondered, “How do I tell which one is the real Jesus and which one is the artificial human one?”

I don’t have an answer for that one yet. What I am 100% convinced of is that the struggle–not the answer–is the point of the question. Life is complicated, and we want answers for everything, but when we oversimplify all the questions of the real world, we close out God when he’s inviting us to grow. This is the lesson I take from this quote.