The Difficulty of Discernment

Background image by George Desipris, via Pexels

I’ve been wrestling a lot lately with the “prophetic” part of the baptismal call: priest, PROPHET, king. Like many people, until I was well into adulthood I had a wrong understanding of what it means to be a prophet. Prophecy was never about predicting the future. It was about speaking for God. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah et al called out leaders, cultural institutions, and members of the culture for behaviors and attitudes that stood in opposition to the covenant they’d sworn to uphold.

Of course, no one likes being called out, so prophets often ended up exiled or stoned to death or beheaded (like John the Baptist). But it didn’t change the fact that they were speaking truth to power, whether anybody ever changed or not.

It’s hard to discern this call in modern life. The world is so noisy, and people speak what they believe to be “truth” with great volume and varying justification. I’ve been in far too many debates lately, and the people other side of these debates are absolutely convinced that they are the ones speaking truth and I am misguided, while I believe to the depths of my bones that it’s exactly the opposite.

Both of us can’t be right.

It’s difficult to discern when to speak and when to let someone else have the last word. My husband says, “They’re never going to change their minds. Quit arguing. Just scroll by.” But I say, “These are things that doesn’t even stand up under the weight of critical thinking and reason, let alone the faith. If we don’t speak the truth, we cede the battlefield to the devil.”

These days I bring everything back to its essence: “This post/argument/belief is inconsistent with the Gospel.” We’ve been blurring the lines between faith and politics so long, we often don’t even recognize that some of the most passionately-held opinions in Religious World have nothing whatsoever to do with the Gospel, and are, in some cases, contrary to it. I understand it, because I lived it until I was more than thirty years old. It was a hard thing, requiring a lot of humility and prayer, to allow myself to change. It only happened because the reality of parenting a child with a developmental disability put me nose to nose with inconvenient truths I had, until then, been able to ignore.

It’s very uncomfortable to envision oneself in a prophetic role. Who am I to do this? How can I be sure I’m actually speaking what God wants said? What if I’m wrong?

Except… the sea change in my world view has been so tightly woven into my spiritual growth, I don’t see how it could be wrong. I’ve been praying too long, too fervently, and too consistently for discernment, for wisdom, for clarity, for God’s will, and for God to keep me on the path of that will, whatever it is. There’s no way God would have allowed me to continue on a totally erroneous path. If I were wrong, God would have put me face to face with other inconvenient truths I couldn’t avoid, to make it clear I needed to detour. Instead, the epiphanies of the last decade or two keep being confirmed.

I’m afraid of breaking relationships. I’m afraid of going too far and abandoning God’s path in the opposite direction. I’m afraid of speaking the right thing in the wrong way and doing more harm than good. I’m afraid of failing altogether when the stakes are so high. Most of all, I’m worn out by the battle. I know in the end, God will sort it out, that “success is not the prize” as Rory Cooney wrote. But it’s hard to stand in the maelstrom and wonder if I’m being egotistical for thinking I’m meant to be in it at all.

Jesus and Justice

We’ve all heard the Gospel passage a million times: Jesus, talking about the importance and permanence of marriage.

My whole life, I have focused on the obvious teaching here: that marriage is forever, and divorce = bad.

But there’s a lot to unpack in the unspoken questions of justice that lie behind this teaching. Women didn’t get to file for divorce in ancient Israel. Only men. And when women got cast aside, they didn’t have many options–and no good ones at all.

So this teaching protects women, who were among the most powerless in society in his time. This says a lot about the sanctity of marriage, of course–but it also says a lot about what Jesus thought about the pursuit of justice in the temporal world.

Because really, that’s what the disciples were all bent out of shape about in the later part of this Gospel passage, when they protested to Jesus: the limits on their power. They’re just baffled by Jesus saying this. “If we can’t divorce a wife whenever we want,” they say, “then it’s be better not to get married at all!” Jesus just cut the legs out from under their absolute power in relationship. Of course they found it threatening.

To those who think we shouldn’t worry about working toward justice in the real world–who think none of that matters because we should only focus on the world beyond–this Gospel passage is a rebuke. Justice DOES matter.

#seethegood… in opponents

Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

I have been struggling the last couple weeks with #seethegood posts. It’s not that I’m lacking in goodness to see around me–it’s just that too much of it is too specific to my own situation, involving things and people that aren’t appropriate to share publicly.

But this morning, it occurs to me that I can share this pearl of wisdom from my husband. For several years, he’s wanted to use his birthday as an opportunity to serve rather than be celebrated. It doesn’t always work out, but this year he did.

He asked people on Facebook to give him a gift: to only be nice to each other–to focus on family and fun, and if they had to go political–well, you can read his words below. I share them today because of something we all know, but often forget: that whatever we look for, whatever we cultivate in the garden of our hearts, is what we get more of. If we look for things to be angry about, we’ll find things to be angry about everywhere, in everything. If we look for reasons to judge, the reasons will not only present themselves, they will multiply exponentially, until we are incapable of accepting–we have trained ourselves to judgment.

I figured this #seethegood moment could be a really beautiful leaven for the coming fall of pandemic and politics.

Enough from me. Here’s my husband:

OK folks — my birthday is TUESDAY, as in ELECTION DAY (for several states). Kate always asks what I want on my birthday, and this year, I landed on something — I’m fatigued as I’m sure we all are. So this year, if you so desire — for my birthday — I’m asking that you do one of two things (or both):

1.) Not post anything that rings of politics or seeks to judge others for a problem. Instead, focus on the kids, pets, sunsets, soft rain, flowers, awesome food, etc. in your life and give us a post about that. OR……..

2.) Look at a post that would normally evoke a visceral reaction from you and find ONE GOOD THING in the argument. You don’t have to agree with the point, but you have to acknowledge that it is a GOOD POINT. And I don’t mean some dumbass platitude. Honestly look for something that forces you to go beyond your comfort zone or your political leaning and see that someone, somewhere who thinks completely differently from you has a good point in an argument.And then, tell me about in a post. Tell me what you posted instead of a political meme or rant or judgement OR tell me about what you found in someone’s post that you initially disagreed with.And THAT, THAT folks is what I would like on my birthday.😃

Think well, speak well, do well.

Camillus is a new saint to me. I had to go look him up. He was a gambler with a bad leg and, it seems, a bad temper, because the hospital where he went for treatment kicked him out for being quarrelsome–all this according to Franciscan Media. But once he was converted, he managed to change, and in the end he took care of plague victims. How’s that for a turnaround?

But his “think well” and “speak well,” in particular, really stuck out at me today. We’re living in a time when we’re under stresses we recognize (hello, COVID), but whose impacts upon us we don’t necessarily recognize.

I really believe a lot of the toxicity of social media right now is a sign of people driven right to the edge of what they can handle and then having one more feather put on top of them. Us, I mean. It’s me, too.

We aren’t able to tolerate some things, and other things we might be able to think critically and rationally about, we swallow wholeheartedly, because we’re just that overwhelmed. We simply don’t have the emotional bandwidth to be everything we’re called to be and everything we’re capable of being. So we see things that are wrong, and we totally lose it. We go wild with outrage instead of stopping to think, “Wait… is this clickbait, designed to manipulate my emotions by using loaded words and ignoring context that really matters in understanding the situation?”

I’m talking of social media, but of course it’s in our homes too. I’m so over my kids telling each other to shut up. The count is now 138 days that we’ve spent with way more togetherness and way less structure than we’re built for. What little tolerance they ever had for each other has long been exhausted. It’s a constant battle, trying to call them back to their best selves. Too often the same criticism applies to me.

None of the externals are changing any time soon, but maybe just being aware of it can help us be less reactive, to stop and think instead of knee-jerk reacting to things we think are totally intolerable. Because as the old adage says, what we think and say becomes what we do and who we are.

#seethegood: scrupulousness

I’m thinking a lot these days about that old adage, “work as if everything depends on you. Pray as if everything depends on God.”

I’m definitely a “work like it depends on you” kind of person. The thing about scrupulousness is that if you aren’t doing All The Things 100%, you think you’re not doing enough. You may be doing things A-G, but things H and I are still sitting there. What if your modest contribution was the tiny drop that made the difference between success and failure? It doesn’t matter if Things H and I are totally outside your comfort zone. In fact, that’s all the more reason why you ought to get over yourself and do them.

It sounds nonsensical when put into words–egotistical, even.

I recently listened to an interfaith podcast where they explored personality types not by Meyers-Briggs, but by enneagram, through a lens of how personality impacts faith: what we’re good at, what our spiritual “fatal flaw” is. The enneagram makes more sense to me than Meyers-Briggs. I can’t keep all those letters straight. But on the enneagram scale, I am a #1. To a T.

So for me, it’s natural to work like it all depends on me. I’m aware of the need to balance that with the “pray like it depends on God.” And I do. I pray a lot.

(But do I pray enough? asks scrupulousness.)

The purpose of that aphorism is to stress the need for balance, but for a person who bears the cross of scrupulousness, there is no balance. It’s always “more, more, more.” On both sides of the equation.

When I express this, certain people chastise me for lack of faith: if only you would trust God/Jesus/give it to Mary, all this internal conflict would go away.

No doubt that’s true for some personality types, but not for an enneagram #1. Anxiety binds itself around you like a spiderweb. You can’t get rid of it. It sticks to you no matter how much you try to shake it off.

Most people don’t “get” this. They seem to think I’m choosing the angst–as if I haven’t spent my life looking for a fix. Through solitude in nature, I can find temporary (and partial) respite. I can nudge myself a degree or two in the direction of release, but the current inexorably brings me back. It is how I was made.

I’m working toward being at peace with this, though. Because the fact is, God doesn’t make mistakes, so if I was made this way, it was for a reason. And if that’s the case, then in this apparent weakness (the people on the podcast said, “Oh, those poor people!” when hearing the description of Enneagram #1), there must be strength, too. A gift to be given, a gift that in fact requires this particular set of traits.

I don’t have it all figured out, but I can #seethegood at least this far: I recognize that my scrupulousness helps me to be a better steward of God’s gifts. It challenges me to use those gifts to the best of my ability. And it prevents me from living an unexamined life filled with conflict between my faith and my lived actions. I have a whole different set of conflicts to wrestle, but at least it’s a clear-eyed, authentic struggle.

Justice = Kindness

Background Image by Thomas Ulrich from Pixabay

It has not been pretty in my house, these last 125 days. Have you intuited that from my posts? It seems all I do these days is fret, gnash my teeth, and talk about the lack of peace in my house–the strain of kinda-sorta-not-exactly-quarantine, the lack of structure, the endless snipping and sometimes screaming, the teenage hormones and the childhood overreactions.

The other day I had my youngest two children working on dishes. In their resentment at being forced to work (not that they had anything else to do; they were totally bored), they instantly fell to squabbling. “You can’t use the spray hose that way,” “you’re taking too much space at the sink.” That kind of nonsense.

I turned to them and said, “That’s enough! I don’t want you two to say anything to each other you wouldn’t say to ME if you were working with ME.” Because they are kind to me, if not to each other.

It was a stroke of brilliance–the Holy Spirit’s, not mine, just to be totally clear.
They are accustomed to being horrible to each other. To be told to treat each other as they treat the person they trust the most required a hard reset. They didn’t like it, but for one of them, the tone of voice changed instantly. In the other it happened after I said, “Would you use that tone of voice talking to me?”

Yesterday’s readings struck a chord so deep, it resonated in my whole being. Our new associate’s homily tied together the various parables brilliantly. It can be much harder than we realize to judge between good and evil, he said. Which is why it’s not our job to rip out the “weeds,” but instead to be leaven–to live the faith in a way that causes the whole culture to “rise.”

But the words that stay with me the most were those from the book of Wisdom. “You taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind.”

In these heavy, momentous days of pandemic and communal examination of conscience, there are many of us concerned with justice. There’s a lot of righteous indignation, a lot of holy anger at the way huge sections of the Catholic faith have been lopped off, cafeteria-Catholic style, to force them into a political box.

People are speaking up for justice, but too often there’s no kindness involved. I fear that the pursuit of justice will fail, because of the way the campaign is pursued. Without kindness, calls for justice often come across as bullying. Nobody’s heart is being changed when they feel they’re being bullied.

None of which changes the fact that the world is crying out for God’s justice. I want to be clear on that, lest anyone read this post as a justification for dismissing calls for justice. Or for resisting guidelines put in place to protect the life and health of all God’s children. The right has plenty to answer for. Blistering the “mainstream media” for liberal bias makes no sense when one eagerly and uncritically gobbles up sources whose violations of journalistic integrity are far more heinous, if in the opposite direction.

For right and left alike, what we choose to do now–whether we are willing to examine our hearts and work to overcome our biases–this is truly a question of following God versus making an idol of self. Calls for justice, specific to this time and place, are necessary. In fact, they’re an imperative of discipleship. These things need to be said.

But the way we say them matters.

Maybe, in the days and weeks to come, “justice = kindness” can be our guiding principle, the standard by which we measure our online presence. We want justice. But are we actually modeling Godly justice–by our kindness?

What if we all vowed to say nothing we wouldn’t say to the person we respect and honor most in the world? How much more calm, measured, and productive might our national discourse be?

More from the Council

I’ve been sidetracked often lately in sharing these quotes from Gaudium et Spes. This excerpt comes from a chapter called “the life of the political community,” and it’s really striking in an era of political division that rests, fundamentally, on the question of how much government control, regulation, and oversight is appropriate.

As Catholics, we’re supposed to let the Church’s teachings guide our world view, but if this quote raises hackles, as I expect it will, I would suggest that it indicates an area in need of examination of conscience and–better still–of digging in to what the Church actually teaches.

The sentence immediately following this quote does address government overreach, but the wording is clearly referring to dictatorships. As much as we love to throw around such claims in America, a rational view of the world should make it clear that we have never been anywhere close to the dictatorial regimes of Europe or Central America. And the paragraphs following this excerpt talk about the need to frame all political philosophy in the context of the common good (in other words, common good is more important than adherence to a theoretical philosophy) and about the proper relationship between Church and the political community–shades of both religious liberty *and* separation between Church and state. It’s well worth digging into this, given the bitter divisions of our time and the devotion to political ideology over Catholic teaching (on both sides of the spectrum).

#seethegood: human connection

Late Sunday morning, my teenager was driving us home from church. I had a full docket of things I wanted to do: fold laundry, some shopping, etc. But as we pulled in the driveway, my teenager said, “Mom, we never took that bike ride. You want to do that now?”

Exercise was not on my agenda. I’d done hard workouts 7 days in a row, and my body wanted a break. Plus–obviously–I was busy.

But when a teenager asks you to spend time with him, you drop everything else. “Yes,” I said.

We did not only a full bike ride, but one that was a third longer than a full ride. My legs were crying out for mercy. But that lovely day, I remembered again how blessed I am to be suffering through this time of uncertainty and isolation in the arms of my family. I have people to touch. People to be with. Our family life is fraught with conflict, stress, anxiety, bad feelings. Too much togetherness. Infrequent and insufficient breaks from each other. An ever-shifting landscape that renders arbitrary every discernment of what social gatherings feel safe or unsafe. Kids lashing out. Kids fighting over screens. Kids fighting with each other.

And yet, I am not alone. A few weeks ago, a national reporter had a conversation with the morning show host, saying, “I haven’t touched the skin of another human being in three months.”

I knew then that having my children to hug and kiss, to cuddle on the couch, my husband to hold hands with, is a blessing I need to keep my eyes fixed upon. Because it is a big one.

Sometimes It’s Not Talking About Us. And Sometimes It Is.

“Trample my courts no more!
To bring offerings is useless;
incense is an abomination to me.” (Is. 10:13)

Isaiah really didn’t mess around, did he? Most of the time we focus in on the feel-good prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.

But in yesterday’s first reading, Isaiah says, “Guys, seriously. God’s not interested in what you’re bringing to the altar. You’re trying to substitute ritual for meaningful action in your real life. Your worship is useless. What gives worship meaning is what you do outside these walls, and you’re not doing it.”

This reminded me powerfully of a lengthy reflection I read a few weeks ago. The context is race, but the part that struck me most profoundly was about the way we interpret various passages in Scripture. When we hear passages like today’s, we shake our heads at those poor blind, hard-hearted Israelites. But when the readings of comfort come, we think they’re meant for us.

Today I just want to share a couple of paragraphs from that article, which was an uncomfortable but eye-opening read. In fact, the article is one of many in a magazine issue devoted to forgiveness; the whole issue this came from is on my to-read list. I encourage you to click through.

Though there is a place for the individual in theology, white theology, in profound syncretism with American culture, has distorted the Bible to be solely about individual redemption. So it is blind to the reality that when Scripture says, “I know the plans I have for you”, the “you” is plural and addressed to an entire community of people that has been displaced and are in exile. All Scripture has been reduced to individual interactions between God and a person, even when they are actually between God and a community, or Jesus and a group of people. As a result, white theology defines racism as hateful thoughts and deeds by an individual, but cannot comprehend communal, systemic, or institutionalized sin, because it has erased all examples of that framework from Scripture.

Secondly, white Christianity suffers from a bad case of Disney Princess theology. As each individual reads Scripture, they see themselves as the princess in every story. They are Esther, never Xerxes or Haman. They are Peter, but never Judas. They are the woman anointing Jesus, never the Pharisees. They are the Jews escaping slavery, never Egypt. For citizens of the most powerful country in the world, who enslaved both Native and Black people, to see itself as Israel and not Egypt when studying Scripture is a perfect example of Disney princess theology. And it means that as people in power, they have no lens for locating themselves rightly in Scripture or society — and it has made them blind and utterly ill-equipped to engage issues of power and injustice. It is some very weak Bible work.

Erna Kim Hackett, “Why I Stopped Talking About Racial Reconciliation and Started Talking About White Supremacy”