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?

Do something

This insight was a really monumental shift for me in my faith. I knew the truth of it, at least as it related to particular issues of importance, of course. But it was a big deal to realize that whatever ignites my righteous anger, makes me squirm, or breaks my heart in the news–those things are, in fact, a call to action from God, speaking through my conscience.

I recognize them now, though I’m far from perfect about the “doing something” part. Writing “The Beatitudes” reminded me of that every time I sat down to work on it.

Book Recommendation: When Helping Hurts

How about a chance of pace for a Monday morning? I have a book recommendation to share:

When Helping Hurts:
How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself

I can’t say enough good things about this book. Written by two Christians (not Catholic) who have been involved for decades in mission work, they share wisdom on how to be helpful, rather than going in with great intentions and making everything worse. In a nutshell, it boils down to this: we can’t come in and be saviors. Our job is to facilitate others helping themselves. There are three types of help: relief, recovery, and development. Most of the time, what’s needed is development, but the vast majority of the time what we offer is relief–because it’s easier. It’s easy to measure, its results make good reports to the investors.

The authors take a “both/and” approach. Many Christians look at the poor and assume they got that way by their own bad choices/sins; therefore their problems are theirs, not ours, to deal with.

Sin is an issue, the authors stress, but so are unjust societal institutions. As an example, they point to civil rights work in the south in the 1960s, and a particular pastor who didn’t speak out on racism.

“Both Reverend Marsh and the civil rights workers were wrong, but in different ways,” the authors wrote. “Reverend Marsh sought the King without the kingdom. The civil rights workers sought the kingdom without the King.”

The authors address overseas missions as well as efforts undertaken within the U.S. When Helping Hurts suggests that successful solutions are not either/or; they have to acknowledge both the effects of personal sin and the effects of institutional oppression, because those two things exert an influence over each other:

“What happens when society crams historically oppressed, uneducated, unemployed, and relatively young human beings into high-rise buildings, takes away their leaders, provides them with inferior education, health care, and employment systems, and then pays them not to work? Is it really that surprising that we see out-of-wedlock pregnancies, broken families, violent crimes, and drug trafficking? Worse yet, we end up with nihilism, because these broken systems do serious damage to people’s worldviews. Worldviews affect the systems, and the systems affect the worldviews.”

(p. 92)

When Helping Hurts offers the concept of “poverty alleviation” as a solution to the complexities of institutional injustice and personal sin. It is a “ministry of reconciliation” in which we use our money in such a way as to empower those in desperate circumstances to begin to help themselves. It acknowledges that they do, in fact, need help from outside, but that as much as possible we should honor the God-given human dignity of the poor by allowing them to be the leaders and the experts in their own lives. That our job is to empower them, not rescue them.

I’ve long believed that in most issues we bicker about, God is in the middle. This book shows us a Godly middle to issues of poverty. Both conservatives and liberals will find things that resonate and things that challenge in this book–which is, to me, the strongest argument that they are on target.

Evil Spreads

It’s important to recognize that this applies not just to the issues we immediately recognize as evil, but to realities we resist recognizing as such.

We have a distressing tendency in America to decide that one issue or set of issues matters so much more than another issue or set of issues, we have the right to dismiss those others. It happens on both sides of the political divide. I would argue this is how we become people whose political affiliations (of whatever color), rather than our faith, end up becoming our primary identity.

I don’t think any of us intend to put politics before faith, but it’s really easy to fall into the trap. I’ve pointed that finger outward a lot in recent years, but you know what they say about pointing fingers: for every one you point at someone else, four are pointed back at you. In other words, I’ve been wrestling with this reality in myself, too.

Surely we can all acknowledge that America has been greatly weakened by the competing rigid extremisms that have been growing for the last twenty years. Extremisms that refuse to seek common ground and build from there. Extremisms so committed to the righteousness of that refusal that gradually, they cease to see there is any common ground.

But I would argue that the “either-or” mentality weakens the Church as well. Because when we dismiss an entire swath of issues as somehow less important, we look like hypocrites to a world we’re supposed to be evangelizing.

And they’re not wrong to think so.

When we decide to pick and choose what injustices matter, we thumb our nose at God. We imply that God isn’t big enough to deal with all the issues, so we have to decide for him which ones are worth fighting. We thus dismiss the suffering of everyone touched by every issue we didn’t choose. Is it any wonder that our efforts at evangelization aren’t successful?

Finally–to most people who are just along for the ride on these posts, it may not have really registered, but the breadth of topics covered in Evangelii Gaudium really underscores the spaghetti-bowl effect. This document, which is titled “the JOY” of the Gospel,” has wandered very far from the topic of joy itself. It underscores that to really spread Gospel joy, we have to embrace the whole Gospel, in all its difficult, messy glory.

Inequality leads to violence

It’s interesting to hear this argument, given the conversations/arguments we are having as a nation about gun violence. I’ve never heard anyone talk about this factor. Of course, violence goes way beyond mass shootings:

– Domestic violence is made possible by unequal relationships between life partners.

– War is quite often a symptom of one group imposing its greater power upon another weaker (i.e., unequal) population.

– Violent protests are quite often a symptom of a weaker, poorer, or oppressed group rising up against the institutions of power that hold them down. (Race protests in the wake of police shootings come to mind right away. And what happened in Puerto Rico.)

And so on. I find this statement really striking because we bemoan violence, we come up with all these ideas for what will stop it, and we miss this obvious reality, which means we can’t talk about violence without also talking about race, poverty, discrimination, and so on. It’s the spaghetti bowl principle all over again.

When I See The Stars…

I took this picture using a shoe as a tripod for my DSLR last Sunday night

Looking at the stars is one of my favorite things to do, but it’s often nearly impossible to find a spot to go where I can actually see stars and feel comfortable because I actually have permission to be there. The bed and breakfast where my husband and I stayed for our “anniversary-moon” is one of those rare spots. I stayed up late most nights sitting on the grass or standing beside the horse paddock at the ranch simply drinking in the glory of the night sky.

I identified constellations I’ve never known before, because they lie too close to the horizon, and at home they’re lost in the city wash. I got to watch the Milky Way emerge incrementally from the darkness. The last night I saw 5 meteors and 10 satellites.

Most of us rarely (if ever) get to marvel at the vastness of the universe in this visceral way. We spend our nights inside, and even when we do go outside, the sky is washed out.

We could all say, “Sure, I know the stars are there.” But we don’t know it, not the way we know the movement of the sun from east to west: where the shadows fall, what time of day we have to close the blinds because the summer heat will overcome the a/c, or what time to open them in winter to take advantage of natural warmth and light.

Sometimes we pause to drink in sunset, but most of us give up soon after. What took the place of this glow, when it faded, was the Big Dipper. But you to devote another hour to waiting for it to happen.

In the same way, the reality of God and responding to/living out his call are things we know to be there, but they often get lost in the washout of the brighter, more attention-getting concerns of daily life. We don’t have time to think about things like what does human dignity mean, beyond the obvious question of abortion: in terms of racial tension, questions of immigration and gun violence and honesty in the things we choose to read and share online.

Things like God’s presence in all the places in the world, and the way our tendency toward hyperbole leads us to outright heresy without even realizing it.

Or how often we go to war over minutiae of worship while relegating to the sidelines the fundamental call of Jesus to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick of body and mind, and basically work to see the Kingdom made manifest on Earth. Good liturgy is important, but not as an end in itself. The liturgy is strength for the work of doing God’s will in the real world. When we get stuck in a war with each other over questions of style, we’ve missed the point.

The devil has many ways to get to us, and unfortunately it’s often by working on our religious sensibilities. Or simply our busy-ness.

I’m devoting the time and energy to this ministry because I’ve spent the last several years trying to quit bouncing along the surface of my faith on autopilot and dig down to something deeper. It’s been spiritually challenging, but also extremely rewarding and energizing for me to recognize the profusion of ways in which my belief in God touches the most trivial minutiae of daily life. I’m not perfect by a long shot, but what I’ve discovered is that I’m better able to teach my children a faith that–I hope, at least–will have the real-world grounding to stick for a lifetime.

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.

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.