The chicken and the egg (or: double standards in Christianity)

“Hey,” my husband whispered to me before Holy Thursday Mass. “I forgot to tell you. Pew research did a new survey and the number of people who go to church is below 50% for the first time ever.”

My first reaction was: And Christianity will blame the secular culture instead of looking in the mirror and examining whether our own failures are the problem.

Actually, it’s probably a chicken-and-egg situation. The culture is definitely getting more hostile to religion. But then again, religion keeps giving more reasons for the hostility.

I know. Them’s fightin’ words, but painful though they might be, I think they’re fair.

The trouble is that the Gospel tells us we’re SUPPOSED to expect hostility from the world. But somehow, we’ve translated that into a persecution complex. We never stop to examine our own attitudes, words, and behaviors for how well they reflect the Gospel. We just assume that any pushback we encounter must, by definition, be the culture’s problem rather than ours. It couldn’t possibly be that we are misrepresenting our faith.

Meanwhile, Christianity fails to recognize how incredibly uneven we are in HOW we choose to stand at odds with the world. There are these huge double standards.

Like: Christian culture is pro-life, EXCEPT when it requires taxpayer money to support people most at risk of feeling the “need” for abortion (because of generational poverty and inequality of opportunity, etc., etc).

Like: Christian culture is pro-life, except when it infringes on “personal freedoms” (cough-cough-masking).

Like: Government should stay out of my business, except when it’s about homosexual relationships or abortion, and then of course it’s the government’s business, absolutely.

Or: Sexual assault and harassment are sinful, but how dare we ruin the life of the accused? (Never mind the life of the victim. Whatever. We’ve been sacrificing them for millennia.)

Or: Honesty and integrity are fundamental to Christian belief—they’re in the Ten Commandments—but how many people have wholeheartedly, even rabidly, embraced a lie about stolen elections that has zero basis in fact?

I’ve been trying not to write these kinds of posts lately. Nobody needs me haranguing them; it’s not particularly effective at anything except making people mad. So I’ve been trying to focus my posts here on working out my own spiritual journey instead of lambasting everything that’s wrong with the world. I have spent this Lent praying for “enemies,” and more importantly, for the heart to do so authentically while remaining in union with God’s will. So much is happening in my heart this year—I am journaling it, bit by bit, but I’m deep in the weeds and I can’t synthesize it yet.

But there are times when my frustration comes out. And this is one of them. And maybe, after all, Good Friday is not a bad time to have our collective conscience stung.

God is Not A Trained Monkey

Another post from my personal archives today…. (Lectionary reference dates from 2014)


Two vignettes:

Photo by WELS.net, via Flickr

One: A priest I know once talked about throwing open the Bible and taking whatever your eye (or finger) lands on first as a sign from God. He called it Bible abuse. A provocative statement, given that probably every one of us has done that at some point.

Two: Long ago I read about a person who invited a couple of missionaries over for dinner. They would not eat from the dishes being passed around the table until they had prayed over each one and received Heavenly “clearance” to proceed. At first, the author was offended. Then he decided this was a sign of their total dependence on God to tell them what was and was not safe.

To me, these two examples illuminate how easy it is to twist faith and try to turn God into a trained monkey that performs on command. We’ve been trained, by a fascination with larger-than-life stories of faith, to expect big and dramatic communications from God–and to esteem blind, uninformed faith in defiance of reason.

And I realized that fascination with these kind of stories encourage the mindset that fed my struggles with anxiety in the first place.

There are certain catch phrases in religious conversation: God’s will and radical faith, for instance. In my brain, over the course of years, that twisted into: if you aren’t willing to leap off a proverbial high bridge, trusting God to catch you, your faith is not good enough. Never mind what you know about gravity. Having faith means being willing to do what doesn’t make sense to you, because God’s way is not your way.

It’s that whole billboard thing again: the expectation that God is going to arrange a message so clear, so obviously aimed right at you, that you can’t possibly mistake His meaning.

God certainly can and sometimes does work that way, but if you expect all divine communication to consist of a “billboard,” you’re going to spend most of your life thinking God has nothing to say at all.

In this weekend’s readings, both Elijah and Jesus went looking for God in solitude. In quiet, in the absence of stimulation and demands on their attention. In extended stillness.

Hearing the voice of God is a skill that takes practice, and if you neglect that practice even briefly, you start to lose it. If I say that modern life is not conducive to hearing God, it sounds so trite as to render the words useless, but that doesn’t make them any less true. How many people fill every waking moment with noise–and sleeping moments, too, for that matter? The radio has to be on in the car, exercise must be accessorized by ear buds, and white noise generators are supposed to facilitate sleep.

Photo by albedo20, via Flickr

There’s a reason people throughout history have gone on silent retreats and even lived as hermits. It’s silence where you learn to recognize God’s tiny whispering sound in the midst of the earthquakes and thunderstorms that make up life. It’s in the emptiness that the puzzle pieces begin to click. And it’s when you start to be comfortable in the void that you start to realize it’s not a void at all, but a wonderful sense of peace, and the beginning of a new way to know God.

I do believe there are times when God speaks in a thunderclap or a burning bush–proverbial or otherwise. The vast majority of the time, though, God’s voice speaks from within, through the utterly ordinary stuff of life. But you only recognize it if you’ve invested the time to listen to the silence that makes the connection in the first place.

A Post For All Who Call Themselves Pro-Life

Today, as we march toward World Down Syndrome Awareness Day this Sunday, I’m harvesting another post I wrote long ago on my personal blog–one that marks a big step on the journey I’ve often referenced here, the journey from a black-and-white world view to the recognition that all issues have to be weighed together, because they all exert influence on each other.

I wrote this in 2011, and I’m going to leave the text exactly as it stood then.


My chromosomally-gifted girly-girl at age four, which would have been around the time this post was written.

A year and a half ago, I was working on legislation to ensure that children with disabilities weren’t denied therapies because of their disability. Our sponsor (my mom) was approaching her term limit, and we needed a new one. We knew we had to find a Republican, because the legislature is Republican-controlled. We also knew that putting mandates on insurers could be a tough sell. Still, we felt sure people on both sides of the aisle would recognize that this issue was bigger than political philosophy.

I contacted a former Republican state senator who was well-connected and reportedly supportive on disability issues. I told him what we were hoping to accomplish, and asked him to suggest people to approach as sponsors.

His reply raised my blood pressure for weeks afterward. (Eventually, its presence in my inbox became such an open sore that I had to just delete it. Just thinking about it still gets me going.) However he intended it, it came across as condescending: a man clearly much wiser than this do-gooder little girl, and determined to teach me the error of my ways. His philosophy went something like this:

Insurance is not meant for ordinary care. It’s meant for emergencies, for extraordinary circumstances, cataclysmic events you can’t anticipate. Therapy is normal, ongoing care for kids with special needs; thus, insurers shouldn’t have to pay for it unless they want to. And the government certainly shouldn’t be putting a mandate on them. It’s the responsibility of the families to provide for their children what they think is important. He understood how tough this was for families to accept, but nonetheless that was the way it was.

I’m sure you can appreciate why I hit the roof when I read this email. Never mind that raising a child with special needs is extraordinary circumstances and something you often can’t anticipate. I had the good sense not to respond at all, because there wasn’t one polite thing I could have said. But believe me, I’ve composed many, many responses in my mind. And the more time passes, the more convinced I am of the grave flaw in his argument.

Because this man calls himself prolife—by which he means that he believes abortion is wrong. But respect for life is so much bigger than abortion. It’s an attitude that should permeate all of life, in all its forms and manifestations. Prolife politicians are very good at being outraged by the systematic termination of “imperfect” children. But if you’re going to ask people to shoulder the responsibility of caring for children with disabilities, you can’t abandon them once the child is born.

Missouri has a great program called First Steps, which provides these services. But in rural areas, it’s hard to find providers to come to the home. And First Steps ends at age three, after which kids enter the school system. We’re lucky—we have a great early childhood program where I live. But we’re in an urban area. What about families in small towns without the resources to provide for kids through the schools?

When I was serving on the Children’s Therapy Act committee, we heard stories of people who had to sell their homes to pay for their kids’ treatment, people who deliberately stayed in low-paying jobs so that they would qualify for Medicaid, which does cover these therapies.

How dare politicians stand on a soapbox, claiming that all life is precious, that children with disabilities have a right to live, and then turn their backs on families who actually have them? Do they not realize that, unlike insurance companies, parents can’t negotiate reduced rates? Do they not realize how crippling the expense of therapy becomes? Or do they just not care?

Political philosophy is all well and good, but it cannot be so rigid that it leaves behind those it purports to serve. I happen to think that minimizing regulations is a sound principle—within reason. But the reality is that power companies aren’t going to implement environmental reform if it’s going to cost them money. CEOs aren’t going to give up their huge bonuses just because the economy’s rough on the little guy. Some things MUST be mandated, or they won’t happen at all.

Doesn’t it make more sense to get these kids the treatment they need to become productive, (tax-paying) members of society? And if we don’t, if we shove the disabled population into a corner, behind a wall where their lack of function doesn’t make everyone else uncomfortable—if we don’t show them the respect they are due as human beings by providing them the tools necessary to integrate into society—then how can we be horrified and outraged by the eugenics of aborting the “imperfect”?

I share this example today in the hope that it will open people’s eyes to the many ways besides abortion in which life is disrespected. We’re accustomed to hearing about certain issues: death penalty, abstinence education, end-of-life issues—but respect for life is everywhere, all the time, in every single issue we face as voters. As we head into an election cycle, I beg you: challenge your candidates to man up and be consistent. If you’re going to respect life, you have to respect life in all its forms.

“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

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by spratmackrel, via Flickr

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.)

Praying for “enemies”

I woke up early this morning with this Scripture in my mind. I sort of wince at the words “enemies” and “persecute.” They seem like really extreme words. I’d like to think I don’t have any enemies. Opponents, yes, but not enemies. And persecute? There’s such a glut of persecution complex these days, where people see themselves as harassed and mistreated and use that as an excuse not to examine their own behavior and beliefs for places where they’re out of line. I feel a tremendous antipathy toward applying this Scripture to myself.

Still, this Lent I knew I needed to connect my spiritual practice to the examination of conscience I was already going through, and while I may quibble with the extremity of the labeling, the concept Jesus lays out here is exactly what I most need to do right now.

But it’s hard, and not just from the perspective of humility. HOW does one pray for one’s enemies? I mean, if you pray for them to be converted and changed, you’re assuming you are 100% right and they are 100% wrong, and we all know how Jesus felt about such self-righteousness. I can’t pray for them to find success in their endeavors, though, because the reason I feel such angst toward them is because I see their endeavors as deeply contrary to God’s will. And praying for God to bless them seems like a cop-out.

So this is my Lenten discipline: seeking to find the words that can be prayed authentically, for people I disagree with profoundly, while remaining humble enough not to think I have all the answers.

Dorothy Day on prayer

My spiritual group has been slowly working through The Reckless Way of Love, a collection of reflections from Dorothy Day’s writings and journals. Yesterday’s chapter was pregnant with resonance. It was so affirming to see her reflect on a day she’d been in a bad mood and bitten someone’s head off. Saints always call themselves sinners, but we rarely see someone (even someone in the process) actually do something that makes us go, “Oh yeah, that’s a sin. I do that all the time.” But her reaction to it was really profound. It got her thinking about how awful it was that she’d bitten the head off someone who was totally dependent on her. It caused her to reflect on how humility before God is beautiful, but humility because your bread and butter depend on it strips a person of his or her dignity. This is a great book–bite sized excerpts saturated with profound insight.

Right = duty

On my spiritual journey right now I am trying to focus on my own failings rather than those of the world. I see this playing out all over the place in the world (please tell me you can too), but I’m trying to focus on changing me right now. I could point this at newsworthy items. I could point it at my kids. Hoo-boy, do I ever see it play out there. But I’m keenly aware that if I want the conversion of the world, I have a duty to work with God for my own conversion first. Because “the world” includes me, too.