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

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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.

Joy = Freedom?

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Until I started reading Evangelii Gaudium last fall, I had never thought much about the relationship between joy and faith. The very beginning of this apostolic exhortation consists of a list of very familiar Scripture quotes that I never before thought of in terms of joy.

Simple, childlike joy: if we want to evangelize, Pope Francis said, we do it by showing that our faith in Jesus Christ gives us joy.

I have to admit, “joy” is not the vibe I get off most of the people who make a big Thing out their Christian faith. Some…yes. But a precious few.

More to the point, it’s definitely not been the vibe I sensed from myself. I want to see the world as God sees it—yes, there’s beauty, but there is also so much that is not as it should be. How can I help being grieved by what grieves the heart of God?

For years, faith has reminded me of Jacob wrestling with God/the angel. What is the point of faith, after all? Isn’t it to challenge us to become better than we would be without it? If the point of faith is to pat us on the head and tell us how we’re saved and forgiven and we’re blessed in temporal terms because we’re saved—well, I would submit that what we’re actually worshiping isn’t God at all, but our own comfort.

But where does that leave “joy”?

Yesterday morning, singing James Moore’s “Taste & See,” a line leaped off the page:
“From all my troubles I was set free.”

The psalms encompass the breadth of human emotional experience. I know this. But this is Psalm 34. There are more than a hundred more psalms after this one. There is no way that David never had more troubles after writing this song.

Which means…what?

Maybe being set free from troubles just means those troubles don’t rule you. You still have to walk through the dark valleys, but you don’t have to let them define you. They don’t have to define your identity.

So maybe it’s okay to be angry with the things I see happening in the world. But I don’t have to internalize it, dwell on it, and lie awake fretting about it. (Or what people think of me for calling it out, for that matter.)

And maybe it means that I can advocate for the will of God in the world, as best I can discern it, but I don’t have to be crushed when the inevitable setbacks come. I can default to joy, even though things aren’t as they should be.

That would be freedom, indeed.

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It’s not about what we say

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It seems like everyone these days is focused on “what do we say to the ‘none’s?” and “How do we talk about Jesus?”

I can’t help feeling that those are the wrong questions. Pope Francis’ contention in Evangelii Gaudium is that when we’re filled with the Gospel, it’ll overflow from us automatically.

These days, I’m becoming more and more convinced that simply living the Gospel authentically, holistically, and with joy is the simple, yet difficult part of evangelization that we have to master first. For better or for worse, the world sees an image of God in us–in our words, in our actions, and in the way we approach everyday situations and hot button issues. If the image we present is beautiful and inviting, we don’t have to say anything at all. If it’s off-putting, nothing we say will make any difference anyway.