Imperfect, but Okay? Really?

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This quote first struck me because it doesn’t make sense. I have a garden. And a lawn I’ve recently reseeded. If I see a weed, I grumble a LOT. In fact, I’ve been going outside lately and pulling crabgrass out of my lawn, in a nod to complete futility. I do not see the swath of green, I see the weed. I see the imperfection.

In this one area, at least, we’re consistent in how we handle the physical and the spiritual world. We are not willing to tolerate imperfections in expressions of faith, either. It’s got to be all or nothing, and the problem is that the more we cling to that, the more people choose “nothing.”

A few years ago, someone asked me for advice on convincing a reluctant spouse to embrace Natural Family Planning. I, in turn, asked advice from a friend, who said, “Tell them to practice NFP. It’s about practicing. You do the best you can. You’re going to screw up. Just keep practicing.

This was a real brain-stretching thought for me. To me, NFP was an all or nothing prospect. You do it or you don’t. It had never before occurred to me that maybe something so challenging and outside the cultural norm is, by definition, going to be done badly (and here I don’t mean mistakes in applying the method, I mean spiritual choices) and with lots of spiritual mistakes on the way to doing it well. Like practicing the piano, or the violin. You’re bad before you’re good, but that doesn’t make the effort any less laudable or worth undertaking.

Why have we never thought about the spiritual life this way?

My brain is exploding with thoughts on this, but I’ll leave it there for today and take up the question again after the weekend.

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.

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.

Divine Creativity

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There’s no doubt the Church is going through a period of darkness and ecclesial weakness right now. Many have left the Church and plenty of the rest of us have been shaken. This is such a beautiful reminder for this time and place. Come, Lord Jesus! Come, Holy Spirit!

Fulfillment of human dignity

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Happy Memorial Day to my U.S. readership! It’s been a crazy May for me, so if I take a hiatus next week, bear with me. I have a lot of catchup to do, and now the kids are out of school–time to get some healthy summer habits set up!

On that topic…Yesterday, some friends and I were chatting about what it takes to get our children to really connect the faith with the real world. There was discussion about whether working at the soup kitchen might be just as effective as formal religious education. Perhaps not a substitute, but definitely food for thought as summer break begins and parents have a little time to breathe, to live intentionally with our families…

If goodness wants to spread, why do I harden my heart to others?

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One of the hardest things about harvesting quotes from Church documents is that, taken out of context, we don’t always appreciate the magnitude of what we’re reading. This quote, for instance, is in the middle of a passage on goodness. Goodness, Pope Francis says, spreads outward by its very nature. What goodness we receive wants to expand out to others.

Is this really how we receive goodness? Do we desire to take what has filled us and spill it over to others? If so, what does that mean for the way we interact with others?

Yesterday morning my son and I took a bike ride along a trail near our house. Along the way we crossed paths with two people, one of whom I think was homeless and the other I’m sure of. I said hello and waved as I do with everyone I encounter on the trails, but where most people respond with “beautiful morning!” or “good morning!” these two men appeared guarded. I got to thinking about how we, the with-homes crowd, react to homeless people. I can list off a series of things I’ve heard or thought myself, and none of them are charitable. All of them focus on the fact that the homeless are an inconvenience, they make us uncomfortable, or they got themselves into their own messes and thus they are Not Our Problem.

These people, who are not beneficiaries of the good things you and I have, have to know that this is how they’re viewed. No wonder they feel a need to be on the defensive whenever they cross paths with us. They’re probably bracing for being reported to the police and kicked out, when they have nowhere to go.

Where is the evidence, in these instances, that goodness desires to spread outward? If we are truly receiving goodness–in other words, if we are cognizant of it, if we are truly grateful for all we have been given–why do we default to judging those less fortunate based on assumptions about their situations? Are we truly free from sin? Because if we are, shouldn’t we be more willing to acknowledge and responsive to–not just individually but as a society–the needs of others?