What does my faith cost me?

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Intentional Catholic has been on my mind a long time, but among the many things that gave me pause was the cost.

I don’t mean money. I’m thinking of the time it takes, for one thing. (I spend a lot of time on this.) I quit blogging several years ago because the cost-benefit analysis didn’t work anymore.

But more than that, I was dreading the emotional cost. Writing a blog like this is an exercise in balance. I don’t have all the answers and I’d darned well better not act like I do. Who would want to read that? It’s intrinsically egotistical to think little ol’ me has any spiritual insights to offer anyone at all. (I wrote about this on my personal blog a few years ago.)

More even than that, the emotional cost is the risk of breaking relationships. I knew there’s no way to talk about living the faith in the real world without addressing contentious issues. And in the past few years, I’ve experienced personally the cost of relationships damaged by incompatible world views. It’s steep. It hurts… a lot. I’ve lost a lot of sleep battling the anxiety caused by broken relationships and the fear of breaking more by standing up for the things God has taught me (also at great personal cost) in the past few years. Things many religious people don’t want to hear.

But I also knew the call was real, because I couldn’t escape it. It pursued me all the time, across Facebook, the news, and my personal interactions.

Then, this past January, someone I admire greatly asked a group of us to consider: “What has my witness to the faith cost me? And if the answer is ‘nothing,’ what does that tell me?”

Those two questions exploded in my head. It was a signpost from God–one of the clearest I’ve ever received. If I was serious about all this “living the faith intentionally” stuff, I had to take the leap.

Who am I to speak about the things I see God telling me about faith in the real world?

But who am I to withhold what God is calling me to share? I am his hands and feet and voice in the world, said Teresa of Avila.

I knew this project would hit nerves. The writings of the Church skewer us all at some point. They’re supposed to. They’re meant to call us out of the world. All of us cling tightly to worldly concerns in some facet of our lives, and all of us react the same way when those idols are challenged.

But I also feel confident I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, because for the first time, I’m not losing (much) sleep over fear and anxiety. For the first time in all the years I’ve spent trying to identify my “target audience,” I know exactly who I’m supposed to reach: my fellow Catholics. For the first time, when I consider the question, “What has my witness to the faith cost me?” I can say I know what it is–and add that it isn’t as hard to bear as I thought it would be—because I rest in confidence that God has my back.

Spaghetti Bowls

Image by Aline Ponce from Pixabay

My spiritual director once told me, “The intersection of faith and politics is a mess. It’s like a big bowl of spaghetti. You tug on one piece and all the rest of them move, too.”

Last week, I shared a quote from Evangelii Gaudium about economic policy. I knew it would make people defensive, but still, I was surprised by how many who have never commented on a post felt compelled to do so on this one. It really underscored how strong is our impulse to say, “Oh, no, Church, you just butt out of_____. That has nothing to do with you.”

For many who lean left politically, contraception is one of those issues. It’s so ubiquitous in the modern world; the very idea that the Church would have something to say about it raises hackles. And of course, let’s not forget that the colossal, even cataclysmic, failure of our Church on the subject of the sex abuse crisis makes it very hard for people to accept the authority of the Church on any matters of sex. We have to own that.

For those who lean right politically, this idea of economics is a struggle. Part of the reason it took so long for me to write that post was because it kept trying to wander so far afield. It threatened to stray too far from the faith component.

And yet… if we really believe God created all things and is in all things and over all things, then we have to consider all things in light of God’s will.

Unfortunately, we’re pretty inconsistent about when we think God has a role and when he (or the Church) should butt out. Take this question of money and economics. What was the rise of the TEA party except a group of people saying, “How we use money has a moral component”? Yet if someone (a pope, for instance) challenges the effects of a particular economic policy on the poor, those who embrace said policy tell him he has no authority on this subject.

In other words: “Butt out, God.”

We do have to wrestle with what the Godly use of money entails. As the opening prayer this weekend said, “Grant that we may use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast to those that endure.” We do have to wrestle with what it means to use money in a way that honors God. Jesus spoke very clearly on the impossibility of serving both God and mammon. The problem is that money is such a strong influence, it distorts our perception of our priorities.

This post has gone half a dozen different directions in the drafting: discernment; the idea of what it means to “seek” or “serve;” thoughts about two different great books that shed light on questions raised here; a reflection on my “right” to put these questions out into the universe at all—

Which bears out the image I opened with: all the earth’s issues are interconnected. You cannot address one without tugging on all the others. I had hoped to address several of those threads, but I’d have to write a book to do it, and I’m determined to keep Intentional Catholic posts short.

So I’ve split off all those other “strands of spaghetti” into posts of their own, and I just want to conclude today with an invitation to self-reflection.

What are the contemporary issues I don’t want God and His Church talking to me about? (We all have them.) Do I think I’m justified in that? If I had to explain myself to God on these issues, would my answers measure up?

(Incidentally, these kinds of self-reflections are the focus of the short book I wrote for OSV on the Beatitudes. End self-promotion.)

Trickle-Down Economics: Who’s right, and what does it mean for Christians?

I have to be honest: it’s terrifying to share this excerpt from Evangelii Gaudium. The idea of free market and trickle-down economics is foundational to the world view of so many Americans who hold the Christian faith, it’s often viewed as fundamental to being a Christian. Heck, I grew up that way. I know how defensive a reaction this quote is likely to provoke in many faithful Catholic readers.

So I guess we have to start by acknowledging that we can’t examine this question solely from the perspective of faith, because there is a very concrete, practical reality underlying it. The fundamental practical question we have to answer before we can address the faith component is this: does trickle-down economics work? Does it actually bring prosperity (and, far more important, greater human dignity) to all? Because if so, more power to it. But this weigh-in from the Church indicates otherwise.

According to this analysis, faith in trickle-down economics as a boon to all is on pretty shaky ground, with the financial benefits extremely lopsided–over 25 years and two trickle-down tax cuts, 6% growth for the bottom fifth versus 80% growth for the top fifth; the economic growth credited to those tax cuts uncertain because of other strong influences at work at the same time.

(To hearken back to the topic of honesty and fact checking in social media: The site hosting that analysis is one of the very few sources given the rating “least biased” by Media Bias/Fact Check, a site I visit routinely when I’m not familiar with the source I’m reading.)

Back to the topic at hand. If Pope Francis is right, then what does this mean for us as Christians?

I’ve spent an hour trying to formulate an answer to that question that doesn’t trip political land mines. Maybe the answer is that we all, regardless of where we stand politically, need to pray for the grace and wisdom to be able to self-reflect more honestly. We’ve always embraced it when our leadership has called out the failures and injustices in the Communist systems. And with good reason. But we’ve often turned a blind eye when the popes and bishops have called out the same offenses within capitalism. It’s easy to assume we know God’s will and not even recognize when what we’re actually worshiping is our own.


Background image by Tama66, via Pixabay

This is probably one of the best illustrations a girl could hope for in trying to explain what I mean when I talk about being “intentional” about the faith. We’ve all heard about food waste, but how often do we actually connect it to our Christian faith? Plus, it’s such a general, “out there” kind of concept. Places like this, that put it in concrete terms we can wrap our heads around, paint the issue in big, global terms, which means we don’t always connect it with our individual habits. For instance:

We don’t make our kids finish eating whatever they don’t want, because it might teach them an unhealthy relationship to food… but we don’t wrap it up and save it for the kid’s next meal, either; we throw it away.

Restaurant portions are gargantuan and sometimes we take home the leftovers, sometimes we don’t; it gets thrown away.

And all the while we’re enjoying the bounty of our own privileged existence, people are starving.

What if we were more intentional about how we eat and how we deal with food waste? (This link from the EPA gives some great tips.) What savings might we be able to achieve, and thus redirect toward providing food for those not as blessed as ourselves?

These are the piddly little habits we don’t always recognize as being connected to our faith. Being intentional means we have to stop think instead of doing what we’ve always done on autopilot.

I know. This means devoting time and mental energy none of us feel like we have. Believe me, I get it!

But having been on this journey for several years, I can promise this: Whatever you invest in living your faith intentionally–in these real, concrete, practical ways–will come back to you many times over.

How to Discern?

We all have our preconceived ideas about what elements of modern life run counter to God’s plan. I could list mine, and no doubt some of them would be quite different from yours. Contradictory, even. We’d probably get into an argument about it. Isn’t that what happens every time we talk about guns, immigration, health care, poverty initiatives, race, or climate change? Half of us think the kingdom points in one direction; the other half sees that direction as heresy.

When God works in our lives, we are challenged to grow. Growth requires change, and change is threatening to our equilibrium. So we resist. We come up with a hundred ways to dismiss what we recognize as a threat to our own comfort.

How, then, do we truly discern when God is at work, challenging our preset assumptions, as opposed to when something is truly counter to God’s plan?

I would argue that we have to start by subordinating our preconceived opinions long enough to think around divisive issues and see them from another side. We might not change our minds. In some cases, we shouldn’t. But we’ll recognize the nuance and complexity of the issues, and that would allow us to enter into conversations in a productive, rather than toxic, way. It would go a long way toward bringing us, collectively, out of the place of acrimony and extremism in which we, as a nation, have become imprisoned. And that, in turn, would bring us closer to God’s kingdom.

Truth and Social Media

Photo by Danielle Scott, via Flickr

I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. Like everyone else, I love getting “likes,” and I love sharing and staying in touch with friends and professional contacts. It eases an introvert’s anxiety going into social situations if I already know something I can talk about with the people I’ll be seeing.

But the very thing that makes Facebook so great—how easy it is to share with others—also encourages us to share indiscriminately, without taking time to think through whether it’s inflammatory, whether it’s manipulating our emotions, and in fact, whether it’s reliable information at all.

Having been caught myself too many times by reacting instead of pausing to think–embarrassing for someone who strives to be fair-minded–I’ve become a huge skeptic of all inflammatory social media posts. I’ve spent the last several years fact-checking things on Facebook and trying desperately to get others to do the same–mostly without success.

There are plenty of non-religious reasons why we ought to be making sure what we share is actually true and not skewed:

-the ease with which outside powers manipulate us and endanger the trustworthiness of our elections;

-the way half-truths and distortions inflame anger, which leads us to abandon the middle ground–where compromise and fair progress are birthed–in pursuit of the extremes;

-the way families and friendships have been damaged by commitment to views formed by bad information;

-the shattering of lives in the wake of private mistakes becoming public humiliations.

But if we set aside all those reasons and focus solely on our faith, there’s another one:

We should fact check because honesty is in the Ten Commandments. It’s fundamental to right relationship with God.

Throughout Scripture, the righteous one is praised: the one who does not swear, the one whom everyone knows can be trusted to be truthful. One who speaks with integrity. Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no (a shot at the hyperbole that characterizes modern “communication”). The upright one is like a tree planted by a running stream. And so on.

Telling the truth is one of those basic rules of humanity we teach our kids. Dishonesty from our kids is one of the most relationship-damaging offenses, because it destroys trust.

And yet when it comes to social media, we forget all of this. We take every meme at its word, without even pausing to think, “Maybe I should double-check whether this is legit before I hit ‘share’.”

Or: “Does this even make sense?”

The misinformation, distortions, and misleading inflammatory things we share online may not be our own words, but they become our words when we speak them, and therefore it is our responsibility as Christians to make sure we do our due diligence before sharing. If a headline makes you angry, you’d better be on your guard, because it’s probably a sign that someone’s taking liberties with the truth in order to manipulate you.

Everybody wants lots of likes, you know, and too many don’t care if they bend the truth to the breaking point to get them.

It takes all of 30 seconds to type a search string into Google and see if something’s been flagged on one of the fact-checking sites. Also, we need to pay attention to the sites where we get information. We tend to trust any “news” site that agrees with us in their editorial slant, and we turn off the brain God gave us to think critically about what we take in. Some sites routinely shared by Christians ought to be boycotted altogether, because they’re among the worst offenders.

Honesty. It’s one of the foundations of our faith, let alone any successful society. If we want to stand before God with a clear conscience, we have got to check the accuracy of the things we choose to share.

Clinging to security

Background image by KasunChamara, on Pixabay

People are starving, not just for food, but for being treated with dignity and for acknowledgment of their wounds. Earlier in #49, Pope Francis talks about preferring a Church bruised and hurting from being out there with people to one that is “unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” That description seems uncomfortably apt.

He also names a fear that I think drives a lot of religious people: the fear of “going astray,” which I interpret as the fear that if we go out into a sinful world, we’ll be corrupted by it. (We put our kids in bubbles for this reason, too.)

It occurs to me that if our faith is so weak it can’t survive the challenge of being around temptation, then the solution isn’t to hide from temptation, but to do some good work strengthening our faith.

I freely admit that I am no model for going out into the world and getting my feet dirty. In my case, it’s a result of an introvert’s paralyzing dread of interacting with strangers. But it’s something I’m thinking about a lot these days, and feeling called to address in that intersection of my own faith and the real world I inhabit.

A place for everyone

Background image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Right now, the Church is doing a lot of soul searching about how to evangelize the “nones.” In my opinion, we’re driving the “nones” away by, among other things, insisting that in order to be welcome in our midst, they have to come all the way to meet us where we are, instead of us going out to meet them where they are.

Of course, we have a vision we want others to share. But we also have to recognize that conversion is a lifelong process, and we’re not done with it, either. Nobody’s saying we can’t belong, so why should we say that to others?

We need to accept the imperfections in others, because we’re all walking the same path, even if we’re in different places along it. Jesus didn’t get tax collectors to stop being dishonest by standing apart and wagging his finger at them. He went into their houses and made friends with them, and they realized he had something they wanted, which made them want to change. He didn’t go to them with a pre-existing condition: “I’ll come eat with you if, first, you promise to change.” No, he went to them with no guarantee that they’d step up to the plate. He made the effort, and that was what made the difference.

Notice also, he didn’t go into the house saying, “I’ll come eat with you and give you a witness talk to convert you.” How off-putting would that be? No, he just went, trusting the relationship to do the work of conversion. And it did.

So I think evangelization begins with evangelizing ourselves. We need to work at excising judgment and conditional love from our attitudes, and replacing them with a genuine, unconditional desire for the best for others. Not a desire to tell everyone else what they’re doing wrong, and how they should change for their own good. Not a great academic argument based on dozens of source documents.

Don’t get me wrong: I love that kind of stuff, and it’s good for our own growth in understanding. But if that’s how we start conversations with those outside the faith, we might as well not bother. No one listens to that kind of message. It’s a waste of time.

No, we need simply to wish the best for others, and model a life of joy and peace that will make others go, “Hey…I want that! How do I get some?”