St. Louis Jesuits Farewell Concert

I’ll take a day off the usual today by sharing a few pictures from the trip I took to see the St. Louis Jesuits’ final concert in St. Louis yesterday. Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis was sold out–in fact, I bought 4 of the last 7 tickets in July. That alone demonstrates the impact this group of men have had on the Church. It was quite an experience to sit in a symphony hall and be part of a choir of 3000. When the Church sings, it is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

This was, in many ways, the music of my childhood. Some of them have stood the test of time and will remain with us for the long term; others that have fallen out of use were fun to revisit. Best of all was getting to share the experience with one of my children and a friend/fellow pastoral musician.

Pointing Scripture at others

The interesting thing is that the section of Evangelii Gaudium from which I drew both yesterday’s and today’s posts is addressed to preachers. Yet both days resonate really strongly with me as a lay person. I’m guilty of this… are you?

We don’t have to be perfect

A while back, I talked about the difference between viewing sin as “tripping on the way up the mountain” and viewing it as a sign of total, unredeemable depravity. I like seeing this quote from Evangelii Gaudium. It’s the same idea, only a pope said it. 🙂

It’s such a relief to take these words in and let them spread out like salve on a blistered soul. The more scrupulous we are about our faith, the more we think the slightest misstep is going to doom us forever. Even our best intentions can trip us up. It’s so freeing to realize we don’t have to bear the burden of perfection–we’re just supposed to keep trying to be better than yesterday.

And it’s also a reminder that the grace given to me, to still have a place in the race even though I’m not perfect, is a grace I can offer to others as well. I can give them the benefit of the doubt and think of them in charity, assuming that they are working at holiness the same as I am.

Depending on who I apply that to, that’s the really hard part.

What Do Faith, Infertility, and Environmental Stewardship Have To Do With Each Other?

My passion for environmental stewardship was born because of infertility.

For three years, we tried to start our family and couldn’t. It was excruciating. I started metformin to treat PCO; I had surgery for endometriosis. But in the end, what allowed us to conceive was a water filter.

Yes—a water filter.

The water where we live contains alachlor, diazinon, and atrazine—herbicides and insecticides used in lawn care and agriculture. These three chemicals also suppress male fertility. We don’t drink much soda; water is our staple. We installed a PUR water filter, and four or five months later—time enough for the change to impact the male reproductive system—we were expecting.

Were there other ways we could have overcome our infertility? IVF? Most likely. But even if it weren’t against what we believed as Catholics, IVF isn’t the answer to infertility caused by lawn and agricultural chemicals in the water supply. The fix is not to have those chemicals in the water supply in the first place.

My husband and I are big believers in NFP, because we have experienced firsthand what the use of chemicals by human beings can do to the natural environment. To us, Church teaching on birth control simply makes sense. Working in conjunction with the way God made us is a best practice for living. It puts us more in harmony with God’s creation. With how God made us. Self-knowledge, better marital communication—all these are real benefits, but the basic truth is that planning our family through NFP allows us to live as God made us, without harming ourselves or the world around us.

For me, it’s no leap to generalize the lesson to a million other questions of environmental stewardship. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Ecosystems work because all the pieces are in place. God designed them to work in a particular way. If one species goes extinct, it upsets the balance; the ripples go out from there. I was mocked a few months ago by a supporter of the border wall for sharing a link outlining the negative impact on migrating species. It was a reminder that we have an unfortunate tendency as human beings to compartmentalize rather than recognize how all things exert a push and pull on each other.

Here’s my favorite example of this ripple effect:

Just one species, long absent because humans had tried to eliminate them, made all that difference.

How can anyone cling to the belief that human beings couldn’t possibly be causing climate change?

We often try to separate issues into “these issues are faith issues, and the rest are not.” It simplifies life, for sure—makes it easier to process a complex world. But it’s not accurate.

What I find so beautiful about Laudato Si’ is that it makes the connections. In fact, if we live in a world created by God in a certain way–with intention, in other words–then all issues are faith issues.

Primary Motivator

The readings this weekend were all about money. Amos was talking about the dishonesty of those with money–how they were so focused on their own profits that they didn’t really care what happened to the “have not”s of the world. And Jesus said, “Guess what? How you use your money matters.”

Listening yesterday at Mass, it really struck me how those readings should skewer America. The obvious application is the question of income inequality: how many of the huge profits made by companies are held by those at the top of the food chain, how little is actually shared with those down the ranks.

But you know, so much of what we talk about in America centers on money. Many would like to believe we’re a Christian nation, but money–capitalism–is the primary thing that preoccupies our social and political discourse, even among Christians. So many things come back to money: health care and social programs would require more taxes, and we can’t possibly suggest raising taxes. Immigrants are perceived as a threat to American jobs, so again–it comes back to money. The question of whether a president deserves re-election is always about the economy. We’re having all these discussions about China and intellectual property and trade fairness, but nowhere on anyone’s radar is the question of just wages for labor, which is–let’s face it–the only reason manufacturing went overseas in the first place. It went overseas because we, the rank and file Americans, aren’t willing to pay what it would cost to make a product while paying a just wage to the laborer who made it.

We have a lot to answer for, and I don’t pretend to have a pat solution. I personally try to take a step back from the consumer culture by starting with secondhand clothing purchases as much as possible. But those clothes, too, were made by cheap labor overseas, and I order from Amazon just like every other red-blooded American. What do I think God will say to me when it comes time for me to answer for my choices? I don’t like pondering that question any more than anyone else.

In any case, when I was looking through the possibilities for things to share today, this quote from my Beatitudes book seemed to dovetail with what we heard at church yesterday. Because what if? What if, instead of money, we made God’s will, God’s kingdom, God’s priorities, the central principle that guided every other choice?

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.