Cause and Effect

Yesterday I rode out to the spot by the river I call my Breakfast Cafe. It was unseasonably warm (a lot of that this November) but very, very windy.

The wind sounds different in the winter. I once said, “In the winter you hear the wind itself instead of the rustle of leaves.” But I realized yesterday that’s not true. Wind has no sound of its own. What you hear is the way the wind plays the earth like a musical instrument. It vibrates differently depending on what it touches. The wind sounds different on soft grasses than it does on deciduous trees, or the whisper-sigh it makes running over pine needles. The bamboo-like reeds, dry now, but still green, create something more like a rattle. But the bare treetops of wintertime give a low, round, rich, smooth sound, heavy on bass, absent almost all treble.

Sitting there reflecting on the way the wind can only be perceived in the way it interacts with other forces and objects brought to mind this meme.

We like to pull things apart, to examine them in isolation–because it is easier to process, I think. The complexity of the world often overwhelms. But the danger in focusing on things in isolation is that we risk believing they actually exist in isolation. In reality, every object, every person, every issue, is constantly being pushed and pulled, and thus reshaped, by other factors.

I think this desire to simplify and isolate issues into separate boxes is the cause of our American “culture wars.” The foundation of our polarization. The world is too complicated, so we pick the thing that seems most obvious to us–the thing that seems, to us, to have the most obvious answer.

But in doing that, we miss the reality that every problem we face, every issue we have to address as a nation, has multiple causes and multiple ripple effects, and each of those exerts a pull on issues all around it.

I don’t have a pat answer for why the problem of oversimplification and polarization seems so much more severe now than it used to. It’s always been there. What made it explode as it has in recent years?

Truthfully, I think there are a lot of factors. It’s easy to point fingers, but to do that risks proving the larger point: trying to isolate ONE cause, as if it happened without a host of other factors pushing and pulling and shaping that one factor into the form and influence we know, can’t possibly reflect reality.

Just some thoughts to ponder.

In Which I Begin To Understand Anger

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

This week, a group one of my kids is involved in pretty much gave up on pandemic-mitigating strategies. Because now the weather is cold and it’s, y’know, hard, because you can’t be outside anymore.

And for this reason, we’re going to have to say no to at least one major event this child really wanted to attend.

I had a conversation with the leadership, asking if the group would consider voluntarily taking on masking. I explained the medical history that makes our caution necessary: a child with naturally floppy airways who nearly died of RSV as a newborn, had open heart surgery at 7 months, and was intubated again at age 2 for pneumonia.

I got about the response I expected. The burden is on us to just abstain.

I expected it, but it made me angry. In fact, my reaction bordered on rage.

I totally get being tired of COVID limits. Me too, people. Me too. But masking is such a small sacrifice to make for the good of others. We want America to be a Christian nation, but when the rubber meets the road, what does that mean?

Well, Jesus was clear that the most vulnerable among us are supposed to be our priority.

To say, “Hey, if you think you’re at risk, just stay home” places the entire burden on those who already bear the heaviest burden–and to those who love them. (Like my kid.) It forces them into isolation that erodes their mental health, all so the strongest people don’t have to be bothered with small sacrifices like wearing a mask that would reduce spread and make the world safer for more vulnerable people.

Where is Jesus in that world view?

But what was most significant last night was what I learned from that hard spark of outrage: helpless, choking, impotent rage. I felt powerless against an inexorable machine that was perpetrating an injustice that stands in direct opposition to Christian values–but which the perpetrators do not recognize as such.

And for the first time, I really “got”—even if only the barest, palest shade of an echo–what it must feel like to be a person of color in the United States.

I understood why the Black community is angry. I understood at some speck of a level what it might feel like from the inside of a system that thinks itself righteous while imposing unjust burdens on entire communities. And which, when challenged, blames the victims.

The offense against me (really, my child) is ludicrously small. It barely registers on the scale. But it really clarified for me how a lifetime of micro-aggressions would cause exactly the kinds of reactions we’ve seen across the country this year in response to police violence against unarmed black men. I can’t even imagine living every day with the kind of righteous anger I was feeling last night. Let alone multiplying it exponentially.

I can’t walk a mile in the shoes of a person of color, but last night, for the first time, I felt like I kind of understood.

All Will Be Well…..?

On days when I ride out to the Missouri River, I often take the book The Ignatian Adventure (Kevin O’Brien, S.J.) to guide reflection and prayer. Yesterday, the Scripture verse was Jesus asking, “What are you looking for?”

Instantly, I thought: “Peace.”

Then I thought: “No, it can’t be that easy.”

As previously established on this blog, my Enneagram personality type is #1, The Crusader. I am hyper-aware of everything in the world that is NOT AS IT SHOULD BE, and I feel if I do not expand my last drop of energy attempting to fix it, I am derelict in my duty. I am very hard on others, but I’m harder on myself. Integrity tops the list of traits I value most.

None of this facilitates a peaceful spirit.

Further complicating the acquisition of a peaceful spirit is the sheer intensity of family life in a time of division and pandemic. Peace, for me, is achieved in solitude and quiet. These days, solitude is hard to come by. I walk around my house all day turning off things people turned on, closing doors they opened, yelling at them to put away things they got out and left (food, dishes, dirty socks, electronics, you name it), and to quit annoying each other out of sheer boredom… and (let’s call a spade a spade) boy mischief.

And all of you who are out there feeling smug right now about “well, if you’d just teach them,” just remember how resistant your own kids are/were to the lessons you tried to teach. And imagine being stuck in a house for seven-plus months trying to correct such patterns with people whose mental health is as precarious as your own, during one of the most blisteringly, ugly, divisive times our country has ever experienced.

So yes. When Jesus asks, “What are you looking for in following me?” the honest answer is: “peace.” The peace that comes from assurance that everything is going to be okay, and not just someday on the far side of death, but here, in this world. This beautiful, fragile, fractured world given to us as practice for Heaven.

I love this quote from Julian of Norwich. It is so comforting–except when people use the quote to suggest that we shouldn’t be worrying about solving real world problems because the only thing that matters is what comes later. As if you’re ever going to be allowed INTO the world beyond without working for its realization on this side of the great divide.

And yet, also, I have been slowly waking to a new insight, these past weeks. Sometimes situations are so messed up, there IS no human solution. The division in America, for instance. No matter who wins this election, the problem at the foundation isn’t going away. We don’t have a solution for the ugliness and bitterness and extremism of our politics. We’ve chained ourselves to them.

There must be away out—a way toward unity and cooperation—but I can’t see it, and I don’t have much faith that anyone else can, either.

So my prayers, of late, have been asking God to show us the path we can’t find on our own. And recognizing that the path TO that path may be so steep, tick-and-poison-ivy-infested, and rugged, we may just have to take it on total faith that we’re heading the right direction at all. That regardless of what I can see or comprehend–no matter what it looks like right now–all will, eventually, be well.

Human Dignity Depending On Our Own Convenience. (Ouch.)

The problem with being the center of world culture is that we tend to be really myopic–so focused on ourselves, we tune out the rest of the world. Every time I’m out and about at 2p.m., I butt up against this reality in myself. While I really enjoy listening to NPR news programs, to dig deeper into big questions, it’s excruciating to listen to the BBC News Hour. Unless, of course, they’re talking about the USA.

Three quarters of what is talked about on that program is talking about situations that are so off my radar, I can’t summon any desire to pay attention.

This is what comes to mind while reading today’s section of Fratelli Tutti (#22-28). Pope Francis points out in reality, all human rights are NOT given equal time. Some of us live in opulence and others’ rights are totally discarded. We pay lip service to women having equal dignity to men, but reality paints a different picture. Human trafficking, organ harvesting, etc. further illustrate the divide.

Where he really hits his stride, though, is in #25, where he skewers the habit of defending or dismissing assaults on human dignity, “depending on how convenient it proves.”

This feels very, very familiar. The difference in how we perceive the dignity of the unborn versus that of the refugee fleeing Central America (with or without going through “proper channels”) springs instantly to mind. If it doesn’t cost ME anything, of course I’m going to uphold human dignity. But if it has the potential, however remote, to inconvenience ME, well, then I can find all kinds of reasons why it’s not my problem, it’s theirs.

Next, he points out the tendency to build walls, both figurative and literal, separating humanity into “us” and “them.” It’s so beautiful, it’s nearly poetry. Just go read #27. And he rounds out this section by pointing out that the disenfranchisement caused by these sinful behaviors is precisely what leads to “mafias,” which I would suggest is a blanket term that includes terrorism.

So many Christian teachings have an incredibly practical element. Yes, we should treat each other as “brothers” (in the non-gender-specific meaning of the word) just because that’s God’s will. But the reality is that the failure to follow that teaching has all kinds of real-world ripple effects.

The way those ripple effects bang into each other and intensify is what made me start Intentional Catholic in the first place. Because I think an awful lot of us spend our lives totally unaware of them. That certainly was true of me until the arrival of my daughter set me on a small boat in the middle of all those ripples, and I had no choice but to recognize them because of the bumpiness of the ride.

Until then, I had compartmentalized life, thinking, “Sure, THESE issues are connected to my faith, but all THESE have nothing to do with it.” I was totally wrong. All issues are connected to faith.

Honesty, Integrity, and Politics

Reflecting the other day on Pope Francis’ blistering critique of American politics got me pretty riled up. I keep thinking about the lack of honesty and integrity in the political process. We seem to have different standards for politics than we do in real life, and that’s just bizarre. Especially for Christians.

Judging by the way we conduct our politics, truth and integrity no longer matter. We can stretch the truth of any narrative so much, it’s no longer recognizable as truth–and as long as we think it will help us achieve our end goal, that’s A-OK.

I avoid the air waves as much as possible in the pre-election weeks, but you can’t escape it all. A political ad comes up, and I think, “What the actual heck? You have a family. You put your tiny kids on all your direct mail pieces to show what a great, upstanding, moral Christian you are. And then you say things like THAT? You take your opponent’s words out of context so you can change what they mean. You exaggerate their beliefs so profoundly that there’s more falsehood than truth in your statement! How in the world do you do this and then expect your kids to grow up valuing honesty and integrity and respect for others? What example are you giving them?”

How did we reach the point where we think it’s OK to pick and choose what facts to share so that we can pretend the more inconvenient truths don’t exist at all? (”La la la, I can’t hear you!” How childish. How unworthy of Christ.)

I think the problem is, we’ve allowed politics to get so extreme that people actually think the hyperbole is reality. They have stopped seeing the difference. Stopped recognizing that context matters. Stopped recognizing nuance. Why paint with a detail brush when we can use a fire hose?

Once we do that, it’s inevitable that we’ll start swallowing extreme narratives whole, without even bothering to think critically, without bothering to do a 30-second bias check on a place like mediabiasfactcheck.com. (I mean, it’s such a low bar. It takes no time at all.)

For instance, here are a couple sites that conservative Catholics like to share.

And lest you think I only bias-check the right, here’s a site that gets shared a lot by social justice Catholics:

The unintended consequence of all this is that no one trusts anyone to tell the truth anymore. Leaders (unless they’re MY political color), media (unless it’s MY media). People are picking and choosing their own facts, their own realities. Which gives them blanket permission to ignore and dismiss anything that would cause them to question said facts and realities. If you don’t like it, call it fake news.

(All those years we spent bemoaning relativism, and now the entire culture, including the right, has not only embraced it but is rabidly, passionately devoted to it!)

What’s become excruciatingly clear, in all this, is that religious teachings—like, oh, let’s say honesty & integrity–are not given just to slap us with strictures to chafe and annoy us. They are necessary for the functioning of society. If no one can trust anyone else to tell the truth, well, you’ve got a problem, folks. Your society is going to be a mess.

If we would just take a deep breath and turn back to honesty and integrity, and condemn hyperbole, America would be a much better place. We all know it. We all believe it. Why don’t we demand it? Why won’t we do what’s necessary to make it happen?

How would politics be different if we really did believe we are all family?

So there’s an election next week. Let’s talk politics? (Yippee!)

Because I feel pretty certain that the timing of the release of the encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” was not accidental. Pope Francis released it right before the US elections for a reason.

Background Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Over the course of my life, papal documents have generally been pointed at someone else. At least, that’s how it felt. Like America was the good guy–not that we were perfect, but generally we were on the right side of the Gospel–and all those other countries were the ones getting their body parts handed to them by popes.

Fratelli Tutti doesn’t feel that way. In fact, it feels the opposite.

#15 begins a section subtitled “lacking a plan for everyone,” and ouch! does it ever capture modern American life. He calls out politics that make use of hyperbole, extremism and polarization. He talks about strategies of ridicule, suspicion and criticism. About political life being focused on marketing techniques rather than long-term efforts to better the plight of humanity. I mean, that’s a mirror for all of us, whatever our political persuasion, if I ever saw one!

In #18-21 he returns to a familiar topic of the “throwaway culture,” naming the unborn and elderly, and expanding the circle to recognize that wastefulness (like food waste) is also a symptom of the throwaway culture, one that harms the most vulnerable. Discarding people also comes in forms like corporate cost-cutting and racism, and even the declining birth rate.


This is the part where I pivot from “Here’s what the pope says” to “here’s my reflection on it.”

This list of modern problems echoes the questions that preoccupy me, the ones I gnaw over, day in and day out. Trying to understand how good people can fail to recognize bad things, and end up embracing them instead. The frustration that people will always point these kinds of examens at others, refusing to examine our own consciences for times when we, too, participate in or enable evil.

This concept of universal brotherhood is the central problem of our time. Well. Of all human history, but it seems particularly apt in this day and age.

We deal with problems in our families in a far different way than we do in matters of policy. In a family, we have our own concerns, but we also recognize the rights and needs of others, and we know we must look for solutions that serve everyone’s interest.

If we truly regarded everyone in America as members of our family, how would that change the way we look for national solutions? I think we’d have to move beyond “how does this affect ME and MY rights” and add, “How can I balance my needs against the valid needs of this other person with a conflicting interest?”

We need both right and left in order to keep us in balance. What we don’t need is the villifying, the mocking, the “contrast ads” and editorials and memes whose “truths” are stretched so far, they’re actually falsehoods. We wouldn’t treat our families this way. How can we, as Christians, think it’s justified in politics?

Being Catholic in a Messy World

This past summer, I was honored to be invited to speak at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians national convention. Among the presentations I gave was this one, “Being Catholic in a Messy World.” I was asked to give a fifteen-minute reflection on what I mean by “Intentional Catholic.”

I have so many thoughts, I never imagined it would be a difficult talk to write, but it was–because the topic is so huge. The through-line that eventually emerged was how I wrestled with being “pro-life” in the wake of giving birth to a child with Down syndrome. I’ve often said that my daughter’s birth was the earthquake that changed everything for me, though I didn’t know it at the time. This is that story. It encapsulates many of the difficult issues we’re wrestling as a nation (badly). I hope you’ll set aside a quarter hour to listen!

(Thanks to GIA Publications, my music publisher, for making this available.)

“Brotherhood”

Background image: Wiki Commons

I have begun reading Pope Francis’ new encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” and thought it might be worth simply sharing as I read, since it’s new to all of us.

The topic seems like a timely reminder, given the state of the world right now. I can’t quote it all, but Pope Francis sets the tone in the introduction by pointing to St. Francis of Assisi’s trip to visit the Sultan Malik-el-Kamil. He went during the Crusades–a time when the goal of Christianity was to conquer and convert the Muslims–and instead modeled peaceful conversation with no agenda at all.

Two things strike me here: one is that with this trip, St. Francis, quietly and without making a production of it, issued a sharp rebuke to the entire goal of the Crusades. A rebuke that, with the benefit of hindsight, was well deserved.

The other is that Pope Francis is setting the stage to remind us that our worldwide politics of division (because it’s not just an American thing) is directly counter to holy living.

And I suppose there’s a third thing, which is that there’s more than one way to interpret “far away” and “near.” In St. Francis’ case, it was both physical and philosophical difference. My guess is that Pope Francis is gearing up to admonish us to be “brothers” in both those spheres in modern life, as well.

We shall see if I am correct.

What Can I Do?

It’s always dangerous to read too deeply into the day’s Scriptures an overt connection to the modern world, but yesterday it was hard not to do so. I hoped for good judgment from my people, and look! What I got was violence. I hoped for just behavior, but listen to the outcry against people who are supposed to be a beacon of hope!

I’ve been quiet recently, because it’s busy, and because sometimes I feel like a wagging finger, and there’s only so much finger-wagging a person can do before people tune you out.

So I struggle with what to write. I’m overdue for a #seethegood, but that feels like a cop-out when what is on my heart is something quite different.

My bishop sent an election letter, which I shared on Facebook. (For those who might read only here, here it is.) It was a good letter, nuanced in a time when most discourse consists of bilateral apocalyptic predictions. But what really stood out to me was this:

“What I see happening in our nation, unfortunately, is a strident, rancorous discord that tears not only at the fabric of our society but also at the communion of the Church.  And this disharmony endangers the salvation of souls.”

Bishop Shawn McKnight

Within my own circle, there are a growing number of people who have left the Church or struggle to remain in it because of how we act, because of the singleminded focus to the exclusion of things Jesus told us explicitly were our call.

I lie awake at night praying about this. Pray as if it all depends on God; act as if it all depends on you, the truism says. I’m praying. But action? What can I do, besides write finger-wagging posts on social media? I feel helpless.

Revisiting Race

In light of the discussions taking place online these days, it seems like a good time to revisit what the US Bishops have to say about racism, and in particular institutional racism, in our country, and what that reality means for us as faithful Catholics. There’s a lot of anger going around these days on both sides of every issue, and we ramp each other up. Extremism on one side begets extremism on the other. Neither of which are justified, but people only want to point the finger at the other side rather than acknowledge extremism on their own.

Too many Christians seem eager to write off the entire question of civil rights and institutional racism because of violence in some protests. Of course, horrific things like people shouting “let them die” outside a hospital where police are fighting for their lives are equally indefensible.

It’s so tempting to take the extremes, because the extremes are easier. It’s really messy in the middle, where we have to call out both “let them die” and the institutional racism that has sparked the protests which, in some cases, have turned violent. It’s easier to blame one or the other and act like the problem is ONLY one thing.

The reality is, whenever we paint things in absolutes–whenever we write off one point of view because of the faults of some among them–we are part of the problem. That messy place in the middle is exactly where we must be as Christians.

Our bishops are telling us in the clearest possible way that race matters, that racism is real, that we are part of it whether we mean to be or not, and that we thus have a responsibility to act for change.

I cannot say it strongly enough: read this letter in its entirety.