Random Reflections

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Bishop Barron’s reflection on today’s Gospel says that “taking up our cross” means more than being willing to suffer. It means absorbing violence and hatred by way of forgiveness and nonviolence.

That sentiment really struck me in light of the last two weekends’ Old Testament readings. I wrestle often with what the “prophet” part of “priest, prophet, king” means in practical terms. What troubles me is that everyone thinks they’re speaking for God, even when they stand on opposite sides of a conflict. Worldly opposition is to be expected, but human nature has a way of interpreting any opposition as persecution, thus confirming one’s own “rightness,” even if that opposition is actually an invitation from the Spirit to recognize that one’s own heart and attitudes and understanding need to grow.

How do we tell the difference?

I pray over this all the time, because it’s hardly fair to point that commentary at someone else without considering how it might apply to me too. But it troubles me how often, how glibly, we say the words “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven,” without realizing the soul-scouring that follows when we actually mean them.

This is all kind of scattered and disorganized, but it hopefully illustrates why Barron’s words struck me so forcefully this morning. I want to see God’s will done on earth, but I can’t change people’s minds; only God can do that, and God won’t force them; they have to be willing to be changed. So that’s two realities I have no control over. All I can do is bear the cross. Absorb the violence and hatred, and meet it with attempts at understanding and compassion rather than outrage.

Help me, God. Because this is way bigger than me.

Freedom and Fraternity

There’s a lot in this section of Fratelli Tutti that should make us squirm in America. In #103, Pope Francis reminds us that freedom and equality are insufficient without dedication to concrete love of neighbor. Without making a political (he does use that word) priority of taking care of each other, liberty is nothing more than “living as we will, completely free to choose to whom or what we will belong, or simply to possess or exploit.” Liberty, as God intends it, is directed toward the welfare of the other.

And then, of course, there’s the excerpt above. What follows it is a reminder that efficiency is often at odds with the common good.

In recent years, I’ve become deeply convicted about the fundamental flaw in the whole idea of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” #109 addresses this. Plenty of us don’t, in fact, need help from a “proactive state,” because we’ve been born into functional educational systems and families that can get us to the doctor.

We all stand on the backs of our parents, grandparents, teachers and communities. Within our communities, we support each other; this is good. It WORKS. I certainly didn’t need any of those COVID stimulus checks, and how to use them in a way that best served the common good was a matter of no small debate in our household.

But it’s a mistake, and I would argue, contrary to Christian discipleship, to assume that simply because many of us don’t have need for a proactive state means nobody does. Look at the injustices and inequalities that litter America’s history:

These are just a few structural realities whose consequences have rippled down through history. If we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, then some among us are fighting a way, way bigger battle than others.

These are hard realities to accept in a time of such profound division. But the Cross IS hard, and the Holy Spirit gave us a shepherd at this time who’s calling us to confront the things that make us uncomfortable.

The Face Palm

My small faith group discussed the Gospel of Mark last week. It was the first time I’ve tried reading a Gospel as a unit, rather than a chapter at a time, or more likely, whatever is in the Lectionary.

A few things struck me. One was that I really understood for the first time the term “itinerant preacher.” Jesus was all over the place. He arrived on one shore of the lake to be greeted by a demoniac, and as soon as he sent the demons into the swine herd, the residents said, “Thanks but no thanks, can you just go away?”

Another thing that stuck out was the “Messianic secret.” I know that’s a thing, but reading the whole Gospel at once, I thought all those times he told people not to tell others what he’d done, he might actually have been less concerned about theology and more with very human exhaustion! He was mobbed all.the.time. He couldn’t get away from people. It must have been suffocating—crowds all the time, wherever he went. No privacy, no recovery time. It gives this introvert heart palpitations.

But my favorite insight came from one of my friends, who really clued in on this phrase from Mark: “He sighed from the depths of his spirit.” (Mark 8:12) She said, “It’s like being a parent. The kid comes and asks this thing AGAIN, and you’re like, ‘How many times do we have to go over this? How do you still not get it?’”

For the past five days, she and I have been sharing various Kid Moments that caused us to “sigh from the depths of our spirit.” It’s a running joke that I’m sure all parents can appreciate, but it resonates at a more serious level, too. There’s something bone-wearying about parenthood at times. Sometimes, you laugh at things because the other alternative is to weep. You look at the thing your kid has said or done and you think, “I have failed as a parent.” And it’s far too late to go back and correct the thing you know you did X years ago to cause it.

It’s been an enlightening experience, reading Mark as a whole. The Gospels are so sparse—so many details missing—and we hear them so often that it all sort of fades into “yada yada yada.” This exercise made it possible for me to see around the edges and glimpse a hazy, indistinct, yet concrete *realness that makes it all seem more… well, MORE. I don’t think I will ever hear Jesus, in any Gospel, rail on the blindness of the Pharisees or disciples without instantly recognizing the emotion he’s expressing.

Henceforth, in my spiritual life, this will be known as “The Face Palm.”

The Meaning of Mercy

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A few years ago, when Pope Francis declared the year of mercy, I spent some significant time pondering this on my personal blog. I’ve fallen off the radar here of late because, as we all either know or need to learn, “balance” means sometimes one thing has to give to make room for another, but eventually it will swing back. My writing life is buried right now under fiction work, with a book releasing in the next few weeks, and I simply haven’t had time to come over here.

So I went back to my personal blog to harvest a few more posts to fill in the gap, and the mercy posts really struck a chord. So here you go.


I once attended a workshop on writing liturgical texts in which the presenter challenged us to take out all the church-y words and see if anything of substance remained.

“Mercy” is one of those words. A throwaway word, overused into gibberish. At least, it has been for me. So when I heard about an extraordinary jubilee year of mercy, I went, “Mercy? Why mercy? What does that even mean?”

It was that last question that turned out to be the most important. The problem of this simple, hackneyed word has been gnawing at me until I’ve realized that prising apart its significance for me—both as a recipient and as a giver—is meant to shape the coming year.

I have always viewed mercy as synonymous with forgiveness. The mind, hearing “mercy,” goes straight to sin and unworthiness: I’m a pathetic, undeserving wretch whose sins have been forgiven despite my general loser-li-ness. (I can coin words late at night with the best of them.)

The idea of confronting our own brokenness is really important, especially in these days of “what’s right for you may not be right for me.” Built into our identity as modern men and women is a deeply-held resistance to admitting that we treat ourselves, our fellow human beings, and our world with careless disregard for our/their/its innate dignity. Mercy speaks to the humility of admitting we do crappy things sometimes. It speaks to the recognition that we deserve just consequences for our actions and instead we’re blessed—in fact, showered—no, deluged—with goodness. Goodness we usually fail to recognize, because we’re too busy asking for more, more, more.

But if that’s all there is to the word “mercy,” then what’s up with those “corporal and spiritual works”? How do they fit into all this? What do they have to do with undeserved forgiveness?

I’m not the only person wrestling with this question. I’ve been reading anything I come across on the blogosphere, and this single quote is the one that caught me:

“Mercy is being willing to enter into the chaos of another.”

I thought, Yes! That’s it! I understand that!

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It’s far easier to pass judgment on the guy on the street corner begging for money. To say, “He doesn’t really need it, he’s trying to take advantage of people’s gullibility.” But mercy says, “Okay, I will enter into his chaos by contemplating the decades of days and hours and influences I can’t possibly know, the countless steps that brought him to this particular intersection on this particular day, and pry my brain open to admit that I simply cannot know whether he is or is not truly in need, and as such I am compelled, by virtue of his dignity as a human being, to give him the benefit of the doubt…and help him.”

Mercy.

It’s far easier to cling to the distance separating us from the chaos in the Middle East–to say, “We can’t possibly ensure that Those People are not terrorists; therefore it is only prudent to keep Them all out and send our riches Over There so Someone Else can take care of Them.” But surely I’m not the only one whose conscience whispers, If not us, who? Where is there a place of refuge for so many? Mercy responds to worldly prudence with a call to dismantle the geographical wall we’ve been hiding behind for two centuries and enter into the chaos that the rest of the world already knows so well.

Mercy.

I’m finding that mercy, far from being meaningless, is an enormous, life-altering word. Terrifying, too, because it shoves me out of my safe, familiar, comfortable world full of safe, familiar, comfortable platitudes. To live mercy is to enter into the chaos of families shattered by abuse. To enter into the existence of stomach-turning poverty that, if viewed head-on, would force me–even chintzy, never-spend-a-dime-if-you-can-make-do-with-a-penny me–to confront my own excesses and make changes I don’t want to make.

Mercy, I am beginning to realize, is a shortcut to a darned uncomfortable conscience.

“Demanding and even tiring”

I’ve been swamped lately with other professional obligations, and Intentional Catholic has had to take a back seat. When I came downstairs this morning, I knew I needed to dig back into Fratelli Tutti, but I was not prepared for the section I was reading to speak so powerfully to the event coming up next Sunday.

March 21st is World Down Syndrome Day, chosen because Down syndrome, or Trisomy 21, is THREE copies of the TWENTY-FIRST chromosome.

For fourteen years now, Down syndrome advocacy has been a driving force in my life. I was not prepared to be a special needs mom. Having grown up in the pro-life movement, the moment when I had to confront my own distinctly un-pro-life reaction to the news was a pretty bruising collision with the mirror.

The point Pope Francis makes in this excerpt really hit home after a decade and a half of mighty struggles on behalf of our daughter. “A demanding and even tiring process,” he calls it, and let me tell you—you have no idea just HOW demanding and tiring.

But he’s right: this demanding and tiring process DOES contribute to the formation of a conscience capable of acknowledging each individual as unique and unrepeatable. I would not be where I am today, in my growth as a Christian, had God not placed this precious gift in my womb, forcing me to look in the mirror and recognize a host of inconsistencies between what I claimed to believe and how those beliefs conflicted with other deeply-held convictions about how the world was “supposed” to work.

I will never be done grappling with my profound failures around these issues, but I am grateful for the gift of my child, who to this day stretches me beyond what I think I am capable of.

For the next week, leading up to World Down Syndrome Day, I will share here some of the reflections I’ve written or presented over the years as I wrestled with all this.

The Word in the World

This seems like a throwaway, but so much of recent history has revolved around the need for Christians to recognize how our faith interacts with the real world–what does it mean to live Christian faith in a world where misinformation is so rampant? Where social media rules, and encourages us to be our worst selves? What does it mean to live the Gospel when we face problems of lack of respect for human dignity–from abortion through inequality of education and opportunity leading to poverty, homelessness? How does the Gospel call interact with questions of tax code and societal responsibility? With policies around immigration and race?

It’s easy to get complacent about one’s faith if that faith is totally disconnected from the real world–or if one issue overshadows all others. But Romero, in the part that lives in those ellipses, says when the Gospel is taken out of the context of the real world, it ceases to become the word of God at all.

These are the questions I wrestle–knowing always that when I get self-righteous, I’m part of the same problem.

Had we not known Jesus

I have been receiving emails from Pope Francis’ charity, “Missio,” for some time now. They send appeals but also daily quotes from the Pope. This one came this week and caused me to stop. I can see a lot of reflection to be done around this. I’ve only just begun that process, but I suppose the reason it arrested my attention was that yes, the Old Testament presents a God who is often vengeful, punishing generations after for their parents’ sins (as the first reading this past weekend said). And it’s hard to imagine love (at least, as we think of love) in that context. It’s not that God changed between the Old and New testaments, it’s that we figured out something new about God. And that could not have happened “had we not known Jesus.” Jesus coming to earth–showing what it means to love in life and death and resurrection–shows us something about God we couldn’t have understood before that.

That’s the baseline reflection. I think there are a lot more depths to be plumbed.

Dreams, Burning Bushes and the Voice of God

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In the Bible, people are always being told what to do in dreams and bushes that don’t burn and angelic visits. Not only that, half the time what they’re being told doesn’t make sense. Go sacrifice your only child, the one who’s supposed to grow up and give you descendants beyond count. You’re gonna have a baby even though you’ve never had sex. Go, thou stutter-er, and tell the king of Egypt to free his slaves.

And they always do it. And it works out because it was God talking.

We set these people up as examples to emulate. But in my life I’ve had to learn to stop twisting that into a totally wrongheaded view of my will versus God’s will. A view that says anything that makes sense to me must, because it seems rational, be contrary God’s will. And any whisper in the brain suggesting something I don’t want to do must, by definition, be God’s will.

(I said it was twisted.)

As I get older, this neurosis has less power over me, but it was the focus of my spiritual life for years, most notably when I was battling anxiety. I believe now that it stems from the faulty understanding of Scripture that causes Scripture itself to be a stumbling block for so many reason-minded people.

Being modern people, we tend to take words at face value. Being people of written history, people whose grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents have been literate, we approach the Bible like a newspaper, rather than a compilation of tales and poetry passed down through oral tradition over the course of generations before it was written down. The book And God Said What? taught me a lot about literary forms of Biblical times. The author goes through the forms, most of which are no longer in use–hence our difficulty in making sense of them–and stresses that the point of Scripture is to communicate truths about God, not historical events.

People get really nervous about the idea that you can’t take every word of the Bible as literal, historical truth. We think if that’s the case, is any of it true? I struggle with this a bit myself, in all honesty. But again, that’s a sign that we’re imposing a modern sensibility, formed and steeped in the idea that you must be able to prove something scientifically in order for it to be true, upon people who just didn’t experience the world that way.

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I think we’ve all at one time or another wondered, “Why doesn’t God talk to people the way he did in Biblical times?” And although it feels like blasphemy to say it, I can’t help wondering if many of those stories about dreams and burning bushes were less historical events and more images people came up with to try to explain to others how they experienced God’s presence, voice, and guidance. I knew a girl once, angry, broken, seeking and resisting, who sat in an oak forest in the fall and threw a challenge to the skies: Prove it, then. At that moment, an autumn breeze swept a cascade of leaves down and one of them landed on her palm. That was how she encountered God.

Modern audiences recognize that God didn’t literally pick one leaf off a tree and place it in her hand. At the same time, we recognize her encounter as genuine. That’s the form our narratives take today–and we’ve all seen similar stories come through on email and Facebook.

Discerning the right course of action is hard enough without placing unreasonable expectations for clarity on God. We’d all like to have a billboard with our name on it, laying out in black and white the “right” decision. But putting those kinds of expectations on God throws roadblocks in the way of faith. It’s time to stop expecting God to behave the way He does in stories and start paying attention to the ways He does speak in real life.

(This post is updated from one I wrote on my personal blog several years ago. I woke up thinking of it and decided to pull it out and share it here.)

Judgment and Justice

This morning’s reading presents a real challenge. “Stop judging and you will not be judged.” (Luke 6:37). I know very well that judginess is a great fault of mine (and a great many others in these polarized times, across the spectrum of disagreements). It twinges my conscience.

I was roundly scolded a few weeks ago for being judgy about people who wouldn’t wear masks (one of whom threw around the word “communism” to justify it).

But at that time, COVID cases were still quite high, and people refusing to wear masks were willfully putting others at risk. There’s an injustice being perpetrated there, and while we’re not supposed to judge others, God is also all about justice. Where does discipleship lie in that situation?

That gets me thinking about other big disagreements. To me, it seems patently obvious that some attitudes and behaviors NEED to be judged and called out by faithful Christians, because they are violations of Godly justice. For instance: the refusal to acknowledge that racism still impacts the world in institutional ways.

Where is the line between calling out injustice and, well, judgment?

All this illustrates that the seemingly straightforward sound bytes of the Gospel are a whole lot more complicated to apply in the real world. Maybe that’s why we so often give up and go for the over-simplistic view. (Hence, the Chesterton quote.)

I don’t pretend to have the answer to the conundrum. I only wrestle with it with as much integrity as I can.