Monday, August 2, 2010

A Life of No Regrets Is No Life At All

I've been reading Souls in Transition--The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. It's the second wave of research about America's teens and young adults generated from the National Study of Youth and Religion. (If you haven't read this or the first wave compiled in the book Soul Searching--The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teens you're missing some of the most important info to come down the pike in generations.) Among the key findings of this book is something that really caught my attention. Apparently, it is a cultural imperative for young adults to claim that they have no regrets--not in their relationships; not in their choices; not in any aspect of their lives. No regrets. Ever. Nada. Zilch.

Regardless of the decisions they have made--good or bad--the researchers found a pattern of speech that jumped out like a universal mantra: "...but I have no regrets. It's made me the person I am today." Even for things like: dropping out of high school and having no job prospects at 21, or having an abortion at 16, or being addicted to drugs, or getting drunk and then raped.

Compared to some of the real, hard, impossible challenges that get thrown into these young people's lives, I've lived a charmed life. Granted, I've had my share of disappointments and struggles, but I've never been challenged in any of those ways. And yet, I have regrets.

I regret that I didn't stick harder to my first choice of studies in college: fine arts. I regret that I haven't been able to discipline myself and my finances so that I could travel abroad. I regret that I haven't been more involved in the lives of my siblings or their children. I regret that I sometimes take my husband for granted. I regret that I play it safe more often than not.

On most counts, I'm pretty put together and enjoy my life and work. Yes, all these bad choices have had some impact on who I am today but I still like myself and enjoy life (mostly). But is that really a good thing? I mean, should I really be giving myself a pat on the back for being undisciplined, lazy, uncaring or stupid?

Frankly, I think the whole "no regrets" mentality is more debilitating than cutting off your foot. Having no regrets stunts your growth--emotionally, mentally and spiritually. It screams of an unexamined life (props to Socrates). If anything, having regrets is the little holy gremlin in my mind that tells me that I'm being a) selfish, b) self-absorbed, c) stubborn, d) silly, e) sinful or f) childish. (I really did try to come up with another alliterative word here. Fail.)

It is regret that helps me to know when I've needed to make things right between myself and those I've hurt. Regret spurs me on to be more and better than I was a moment before. Regret gives me goals to work toward. Regret opens up the possibility of forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption. Regret is the mother of grace.

Somehow, we've managed to raise a whole generation of young folk who believe that their lives are self-contained, that their actions have no real consequence to themselves or others, that the miracle of grace IS the lie. That's our fault, not theirs. We're the ones who raised them. We were asleep at the wheel. And I regret that.

The views expressed in this blog are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

We Wait in Joyful Hope

This posting is a little late, but sometimes it takes me a while to process what's been in my mind and in my heart. The Advent and Christmas liturgical seasons are officially over for 2009, but I wanted to share with you what I was thinking and praying about during Advent.

I have a very special memory of something that happened to me as a little child. On Christmas Eve, Mom brought down from the attic the banged-up, musty, ancient cardboard box. Inside were all the Christmas ornaments and decorations. Each had been lovingly, tenderly wrapped in tissue paper and placed in the carton the year before just as they had been placed there the year before that and the year before that.

Out of this moldering treasure chest I plucked out an equally ancient music box that was shaped like a church. It was white with a tall steeple and had sparkles on the roof that were supposed to represent snow. Well, it had pockets of snow -- my sisters and brother years before had picked off much of it. And, if truth be told, I was equally culpable.

This little church had six cellophane stained glass windows, three on each side, and a light bulb inside. When it was plugged in, the windows were illumined and light streamed out from the doorway and the steeple. I can remember turning out the lights in the living room and, with some effort, winding the key in the back. I listened in the dark to the gentle "dink, Da-dink, dink" of "Silent Night" while the walls of the room were bathed in red and blue and gold from the stained glass windows of my music box church.

This Christmas Eve was, for me, my first conscious recognition that something very holy was taken place.

My parents and older siblings were running around cleaning and cooking and doing all the things that needed to be done for the next day. But I just sat there in the dark, with only God's little house for light. And the angels sang "Silent Night" just for me. Indeed, something very holy was taking place. It wasn't until I was an adult that I understood that Jesus was being born in my heart that very moment.

I think there are a couple of reasons why this wondrous event happened to me. My family had some pretty specific rituals regarding Advent and Christmas.

Advent and Christmas were considered distinct from one another. Related, obviously, but distinct nonetheless. There would be very simple reminders of this season of patient waiting: an advent wreath, advent calendars and the statues of Mary and Joseph on the mantle, but no baby Jesus. Not yet.

There was nothing in the house that suggested that Christmas was upon us, despite what it looked like on our street or in the mall or on TV. We didn't even have a Christmas tree. While we slept, Santa made a Herculean effort each and every Christmas Eve to get that tree up and decorated for each of us seven kids to find in the morning

But while not much was happening inside our home, much was happening inside our hearts. So much so, each Christmas morning was an explosion of joy and breath-taking wonder. My family's preparations had mirrored the joyful expectation that Mary and Joseph must have felt during their nine-month wait for their child, the Promised One of old, to be born. And that's when we found the baby Jesus nestled between Mary and Joseph on the fireplace mantle.

The first lesson my family taught me is that Christ is present in the here-and-now, in the ordinary-ness of everyday life. We didn't need fanfare or balloons to announce Christ's presence in our lives. We only needed to respond to God's love the way that Jesus did: with compassion for the poor and outcast and forgiveness for the wrongs done to us. God is so deeply in love with us and wants to share that love with us. Like pigs that wallow in mud, we were reminded to wallow in God's love. We got ourselves covered from head to foot; our hair matted and caked in love. God's love got under our fingernails and between our toes. Our growth in holiness compelled us to cooperate even more fully in what God has already done and is currently doing in our lives so that, in the end, God's Reign of justice, compassion and love is fully present in everyone's life. If we can come to understand ourselves as beloved children of God, then, not only do we become transformed, but also the world is transformed into the Reign of God because we share our love with others.

I learned from my family a second great lesson: the joy and wonder I experienced upon awakening on Christmas morning is a foretaste of the great day when Christ returns in glory. Advent is that time of year when we sort of stand between two places…not quite in one or the other, but equally in both. Advent celebrates that experience of God's Reign in the here and now, but also in the "not yet." John the Baptizer reminds us to prepare ourselves for the coming of God's Reign in Christ Jesus. As Catholic Christians, we are called to constant metanoia -- a conversion, a change of heart, not just in ourselves and for ourselves, but on behalf of the world. We believe that Jesus will come again. We proclaim that at every Mass: "Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again." And on that day of Christ, as St. Paul tells us, the salvation of God will be completed in his coming.

We actively wait. That sounds like an oxymoron. But, advent waiting implies that we are attentive to something that is going to happen. In this case, we are waiting for the wonderful day when God will reign completely in heaven and on earth. So, we are watchful. We are preparing. "The Reign of God is at hand." Let's make sure that we are actively pursuing God's reign with all we are and all we do.

I'm sure that my mom has no idea how important that music box church is to me. I'm sure that my family doesn't fully realize how well they modeled what Advent is all about. I do know that each of my siblings has had, in one way or another, an experience of the holy taking place in their hearts and in their lives.

Advent is about God's love being born into the world anew. Let Christ be born in your heart and believe that you are a beloved child of God.

Advent is about being "clothed in righteousness," acting and behaving as Christ would. Be yourself transformed and transform the world by your love.

Advent is about preparing for the final coming of God's Reign. Be watchful. And, even though the seasons of Advent and Christmas are officially over, while you are about the business of sowing the seeds of righteousness, take time to listen to the eternal song of the angels announcing God’s presence already among us.

The views expressed in this blog are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

When They Name You Pope...

This is the first item in a presentation I gave at a Theology on Tap Dayton South session in Dayton, OH, on July 23, 2009 that was called "Top Ten Things About the Catholic Church That They Didn't Teach You in CCD." One of the hallmarks of Renew International's Theology on Tap, is that the presentations be authentically Catholic, yet a safe and welcoming entrée for those who might be wary of getting in too deep too fast. After all, ToT is a program for religious "seekers." I was happy to comply. Thanks to all the young adults who helped me put together the Top Ten list. You are a joy and a blessing in my life and I pray for each of you daily.

Number 1:
“Congratulations, Your Holiness and Welcome to Your First Day at the Vatican.” What to Expect When They Name You Pope.

There have been 264 Popes since Peter was commissioned by Jesus Christ: “Upon this ‘rock’ I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18) Since 533 AD, popes have chosen their own papal names, beginning with John II whose given name was Mercurius. Apparently, he considered it bad form for the Christian ‘Successor to Peter’ to retain the name of a Roman (read: pagan) god. Since then, popes have chosen a new name for various reasons, perhaps to honor a previous pope, or to identify a particular characteristic, value or charism that he would like his papacy to reflect. So, choose your papal name carefully. There must be some good reasons why we have sixteen popes named Benedict, twenty-three named John and only one named Conon.

Not only are you the religious leader of the largest communion of Christians in the world (about 1.13 billion people), but you are also head of state for the State of the Vatican City, which means, among other things, that you have automatic diplomatic immunity and get one of those fancy diplomat license plates for your car.

Your official titles are: Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor to the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Province of Rome, Sovereign of the Vatican City and Servant of the Servants of God; but your über-demanding work and travel schedules won’t allow any of that to go to your head. This ain’t no job for wimps. Besides, the Holy Spirit has your best interests at heart; you have (as we all do) the ability to keep things in perspective through your consistent prayer life and reliance on God.

You have the choice to address yourself with “The Royal We” as in “We have written this encyclical” or “We would like a ham sandwich.” Popes John Paul and his successor John Paul II eschewed the formal “We” and referred to themselves in the first person singular. Our current pope, Benedict XVI, uses the “Royal We” about half the time. Depending on how formal you want to be, or as circumstances dictate, it’s pretty much your call.

You have a staff of 3500 full-time employees of which 1500 are clergy. The people you see everyday include 2 full-time secretaries, a private papal secretary who takes your dictation and types up your encyclicals, 5 nuns who cook your meals, clean your apartment and do your laundry, and dozens of officers from various committees, commissions, congregations and tribunals including the Cardinal Secretary of State (the “Prime Minister” of Vatican City) and the President of the Governaterate (essentially “the mayor” of Vatican City who oversees and maintains VC’s infrastructure and city services).

You receive no salary but you have the most comprehensive medical benefits on the planet. Wherever you go in the world, you will receive the best medical care should you need it. Your vacation package is less impressive as you only get up to 2 weeks vacation time, which you’ll take at Castel Gandolfo in August or September to escape from the oppressive Roman heat and humidity.

While you have a lot of staff whose job is to maintain to the minutest detail your strenuous work and travel schedule, you have ultimate control over it. Pope John Paul II insisted on a morning ceremony to install him as pope so that he could watch an important soccer game on TV in the afternoon.

You can decorate your papal apartment any way you like. Some recent popes have had favored more modern, uncluttered furnishings while others have preferred the riot of brocade textiles and gilt ornamentation. And, because you’ve got the whole of the Vatican Museum collection to choose from, you can decorate your rooms with any Michelangelo or Raphael that happens to catch your fancy.

You always look stunning in white. Under your alb and sash, you’ll wear white slacks, socks and a collarless shirt. On your feet, however, are fabulous red shoes that would make Sarah Jessica Parker drool. For everyday lolling about, you will wear a white skull cap, called a zucchetto, on your head. For official occasions, you’ll be seen in a miter, the two-pointed hat that all bishops wear at formal religious functions. The design of the miter is based on ancient roman headgear. It is made of cloth and, depending on the occasion or your preference, it can be plain or elaborately decorated with gold thread and jewels. A miter soars into the air above your head and breaks into two points (or horns) which tradition says represents the Old and New Testaments. Because you don’t want to seem aloof, you will not wear sunglasses in public unless, of course, they are the sunglasses that you appropriated from Bono of U2 (In a now-famous meeting between the two, John Paul II admired the singer’s sunglasses and reached up to snatch them off his head. Bono was only too happy hand them over).

Do you get weekends off? Essentially, yes, except for celebrating Sunday Mass, but you are more than likely to spend some time working through the weekend anyway. John Paul II was fond of skiing in the winter and hiking whenever he got the chance. Whatever time you have off, however, will be spent writing your letters and encyclicals—messages to the Catholic faithful that explain a certain article of the faith or extol and encourage the faithful in deepening their relationship with God.

Besides work, work, work, what’s there to do for fun around the Papal Palace? Well, there’s a full gym to workout in, a swimming pool and a bowling alley that Pope John XIII had installed (apparently there’s even a Vatican bowling league made up of various staff and employees). Whenever a crowd gathers below your balcony, you can greet them with the papal “wave.” The papal wave consists of this: raise your right hand, bent at the elbow at a 45 degrees angle with your fingers slightly but casually splayed. Then, in a short jerking motion, move your arm back and forth as if fanning yourself. If the crowd is particularly happy to see you (and they always are), you may increase the speed with which you move your arm. There are times you might be moved to throw caution to the wind by duplicating the same motion with both your hands. That really gets the crowd going.

Officially, the laws in Vatican City prohibit anyone from owning pets. But, hey! You’re the pope! Who’s going to tell you that you can’t have an animal companion? Our current pope, Benedict XVI, has a cat. Pope Pius XII had a canary named Gretchen that, when released from her cage, would fly around and land on his shoulder. Julius II had monkeys and Leo X had a white elephant. The carpet cleaning bills during their reigns always put them over budget.

Some of the most fun you’ll have, however, is naming saints. This is one of the perks of your job. There are hundreds and hundreds of people who lived a life in total dedication to service to God and who have been formally nominated for sainthood. After an extensive investigation into their lives and the obligatory miracle or two has been confirmed, the pope will affirm their nomination. Be warned, however: when you name a saint, the entire populace from that saint’s country will show up on your front doorstep expecting the mother of all parties.

Which leads to the next posting, coming soon: “Incorruptible. That’s What You Are”: Saints Whose Bodies Resist Decomposition

The views expressed in this blog are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Fishing Season

A reflection on Sunday’s gospel: Mark 6:7-13, The Mission of the Seventy-Two

Second only to each of the births of his seven children, there was no day more anticipated by my father than the first day of fishing season. And, while, on any given pre-dawn Sunday, you’d find my dad fishing, anywhere, anytime, for any type of fish, his preference was fly fishing.

Now, apparently, fly fishing isn’t like any other kind of fishing. Unfortunately, I can’t exactly appreciate the intricacies— (it was the old “girl + bait = ewwwwwww” thing), but those who do, will please pardon my feeble attempt here to make the most of the metaphor.

According to my father, to be an honest-to-goodness, card-carrying , hip-wading angler, you had to be able to tie your own flies. In this Sunday’s scripture, we hear: “The Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” Jesus isn’t interested in clinging to this mission as if he’s the only person who can carry it out. He entrusts to the seventy-two what he shared with the Twelve, his mission of proclaiming God’s reign through word and action. I have to admit that I can easily dismiss this aspect of my life as a Christian. It’s so easy for me to say “I’ll let God take care of ‘that’” when, in fact, God actually chose me to be the instrument of “taking care of ‘that.’” People can’t possibly come to know that they are loved and valuable and necessary to the establishment of God’s reign if I don’t live it with them in my relationships with them. One of the foundational principles of effective ministry is that it multiplies itself. Even though it’s not recorded in the scriptures as one of Jesus’ miracles, I think that it ought to be—that we are the agents (St. Paul calls us “ambassadors”) of God’s life and love in the world. As agents and ambassadors, we need to know how to do our job well—to tie our own flies. So much of our misunderstanding of stewardship seems to fall under the category of “raising funds.” I propose that we need to focus on the stewardship of personal and spiritual gifts—that’s where the Holy Spirit’s inspiration resides, where hearts are touched and people are moved to serve. So a question I ask myself as a card-carrying, bible-toting, baptized and engaged Catholic Christian is: Am I learning the tools and developing my gifts to be an authentic witness of Jesus’ vision of God’s reign, his mission of healing and reconciliation, and ministry of service in order to empower and inspire others?

According to my father, you have to choose just the right fly. Jesus says, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals;” Jesus counsels those embarking on this mission to travel lightly -- this is no vacation. One can imagine that the most useful item the seventy-two will carry with them is their own unadorned personal stories of their encounters with Jesus told with conviction and passion. So, I am working on becoming a storyteller; after all, wasn’t Jesus the master storyteller? Note to self: stop being so “academic” and learn to be vulnerable enough to tell the story of how God is bringing me to healing, wholeness and grace.

According to my father, you have to approach the river correctly so as not to scare away the fish. Jesus says, “Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” To pronounce peace upon a household is to value, honor and respect all who dwell there. Now, there’s no guarantee that those we wish to engage in deeper discipleship will respond positively. That doesn’t and shouldn’t derail our primary objective which is to witness to peace – to the whole of God’s reign of justice and compassion. Being an effective ambassador requires that we spend time with folks on their turf. There’s a terrific old saying in youth ministry circles: you have to earn the right to be heard. We can only do that by being present to and with people where they are, no matter what their circumstances, hurts, and challenges are. Peace is the result of loving others—of living in and for God’s reign in imitation of Christ.

According to my father, you may have to cast twenty-five times before a fish will take the bait. Jesus says, “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.” This mission is about hospitality, not having others indebted to us. It’s about solidarity, not charity. It requires that we remain in the same place with others and share life together in a spirit of mutuality and partnership and collaboration. In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet says something like, “Stop wearing your shoes out.” Being an ambassador means being present to people for the long haul.

According to my father, when you finally allow your bait to light upon the water for the fish to strike, you have to make the right kind of “splash” otherwise, the fish will not respond. Jesus, says, “When you get whatever is set before you; cure the sick; say to them “the kingdom of God has come near to you.” Eat. Cure. Say. Three tangible, measurable goals: Eating implies that there’s a give and take—a dialogue, a conversation where one can know and be known. This is a call to be gracious; be thankful—Eucharistic even, if you will. Cure. Be a healing presence to broken hearts and shattered dreams. Be the peacebringer and peacemaker. Say. Make the pronouncement of God’s personal interest in another’s life. God’s reign is here no matter how fragmentary. And it’s available to all. Be the prophet of hope in a cynical world. So, what kind of splash am I making?

According to my father, you have to cast the line just “so” in order to mimic the actual flight pattern of flying insects. Just like most people, fish can tell a fake from the genuine article from a mile away. How do others know I’m the genuine article? Only if I’m engaged in the very same, very personal ministry that Jesus engaged in: eating with sinners and outcasts, curing the sick and broken-hearted, and unleashing hope in the reachable reign of the God of Jesus. The goal of my life is to move into more perfect imitation of Christ.

When I’m feeling old and tired and inadequate to the task of being an authentic Catholic Christian, I remember what a relative said about my dad at his funeral. Something that meant and still means a great deal to me. She said, “I take great comfort in knowing how much Jesus loved fishermen.”

The views expressed in this blog are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Everyday Discipleship

A friend of mine once said to me, “You’ve got it easy. Because of your job, you have the luxury of being able think about God and what God wants all the time. I’m a wife and a mother of two very active daughters and I have a full time job as a librarian. I don’t have time to figure out how God is ‘calling’ me to be a better disciple."

I tried to explain as best as I could that my friend was already living the life God had envisioned for her: she is an attentive, responsible and joyful parent, a loving and supportive wife, competent in her work and a fair-dealing supervisor; she is an active parishioner at her church and gives back to her parish and local community regularly through service projects. All in all, she is an exceptional disciple of Christ just by living her life based on gospel values. She was unconvinced. And, I was left to wonder why she was feeling guilty that she “should be doing more.” Where did she get the idea that “real” discipleship is something other than living an ordinary life intentionally with extraordinary (read gracefilled) faithfulness? Or that discipleship is an unrealistic expectation placed on ordinary folks by an uncompromising God and an over-demanding Church?

By example, Christ showed us what it means to be holy—surrender (Phil.2)—the complete out-pouring of God's own self for the salvation of all. Therefore, Christ was completely for the other. Every act of Jesus recounted in the Christian Scriptures was a prelude—a preparation—for the greatest act of service of all: his surrender to death on the cross for the life of the world. For the initiated, this means that our very lives are on the line so that others “might have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). "We live no longer for ourselves" (Rom. 14:7-8). We live for Christ, especially the Christ who exists in the "other” (Rom. 12ff).

Somehow, my friend got it into her head that authentic discipleship was the exclusive domain of ordained and lay ecclesial ministers. At the time, I didn’t have a compelling enough argument to the contrary. Now I know enough to know that my job as a lay ecclesial minister isn’t about giving people reasons for discipleship. It’s about giving people a language to describe the sacrificial stuff of their everyday lives as discipleship.

The views expressed in this blog are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.