had a dad

A couple young friends of mine who got married this summer just found out they're going to be parents soon. My first thought (after "Whoa!") was, "That's a good way to grow up fast." I'm praying for them. As I wrote yesterday, the transition from child to "adult" can be a spiritually perilous one.

And it's not a transition we relish, I think. Though most young people are glad to get out from under parental restraints and authority, we don't like losing the security of having parents to take care of things.

I think this reaches us at a deeper level, too. A spiritual level. Where we always long for a Father, are frustrated when we can't seem to find Him, and may even feel pushed into the role ourselves ("because someone's gotta do it"). Jane's Addiction said it pretty well in the song, "Had a Dad":

Had a dad
big and strong
I turned around
found my daddy gone
He was the one
made me what I am today
It's up to me now
My daddy has gone away...

If you see my dad
tell him my brothers
[have] all gone mad
They're beating on each other
I walked around
even tried to call
Got that funny feeling

He's not there at all...


one more for the season

Christmas thoughts brought this to mind today, from my journal a couple years ago:

I think Christmas really emphasizes the contrast between adults and children. The delight and surprise seen in the eyes of children, and the tension and fatigue seen around the eyes of the adults. It's pretty much a cliche that Christmas is a time of anticipation for children, but usually a time of tension for adults. Often, I even hear adults admitting that most of the joy they do find in Christmas is experienced vicariously, though the children.

This is a generalization, of course. But isn't there something to it? Doesn't it have something to do with the fact that adults feel responsible for making Christmas happen—while children simply receive it?

The scripture that comes to mind is Mk 10.15:
"Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it."

I think there's something important in this contrast between adults and children (and not just at Christmas). Spiritual maturity is not about becoming "responsible" or "building the kingdom of God." It's not about becoming an adult, if becoming adult means taking charge, making things happen, managing the world, etc.

It's about receiving the kingdom of God as a child.


"when you give a feast..."

Jesus said also to the man who had invited him, "When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind..." (Luke 14.12-13)
I linked to this passage in my last entry, and it reminded me of Thanksgiving here at the house. They have a tradition of inviting several people from the church's "Sonshine Group," a group for adults with mental disabilities. A good tradition. And it makes for an interesting and lively feast. You never know what's going to happen next...


saint nick

The inspiration for Christmas gift-giving (and for Santa Claus) is St. Nicolas of Myra. Not a whole lot is known about him, but this story seems to be the reason for his reputation:

A poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of their plight, Nicholas decided to help them but being too modest (or too shy) to help publicly, he went to their house under the cover of night and threw three purses filled with gold coins through the window. One version of the story has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throw the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes "of age." Invariably the third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Nicholas say it is not him he should thank but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead.

People soon began to suspect that Nicolas was behind a large number of other anonymous gifts to the poor, using the inheritance from his wealthy parents. After he died, people in the region continued to give to the poor anonymously, and such gifts were still often attributed to St. Nicholas.

A pretty inspiring example. But right away I notice that his giving was very different from our Christmas gift exchanges. Take each point I mentioned yesterday: Nicolas gives without expecting anything back; he gives to someone who most likely can't pay him back (as Jesus taught us). Nicolas gives quietly, anonymously, avoiding praise. And he didn't give for the sake of a holiday; he gave because he saw someone in need right then, and he responded to that need. That's real gift-giving. So very different from our Christmas distortion.

Where I'm living right now, in a Christian intentional community, Christmas gift-giving has been moved to Epiphany, or "Three Kings Day." To try to connect the traditional gifts with the wise men's gifts, something more meaningful than Santa. But the distortions of gift-giving are pretty much the same (a public, seasonal exchange, among people who don't really need anything).

And what of the wise men? Again, their gift-giving is very different. They give to someone in need, a poor family from Nazareth, who cannot repay. And it wasn't any holiday. They gave when God moved them to give. We made a holiday of it because their giving was truly beautiful.

But why don't we follow their example?


30 days, 10 hours, 13 minutes until Christmas

Big shopping day today. And of course all the Christmas decorations will be up. I took a walk yesterday and one of the houses on the next block is already candy-striped and wreathed. So maybe I'll get into the Christmas mood early too. Let's see...

I stepped away from of Christmas gift-giving gradually. My first confused questions started when I was a teenager, wandering around a crowded mall trying to complete my gift list. And the questions persisted, growing more and more bold, until I finally stopped giving Christmas gifts altogether about ten years ago.

Ironically, during that same time it was becoming more apparent to me that gift-giving was central to the Christian life. I was coming to believe that everything we do should be a gift to others, just as it was in Jesus' life. When I could finally specify clearly what I disliked most about Christmas gift-giving, it was that what happens at Christmas is almost the opposite of what true gift-giving should be.

As Jesus taught, gifts should be given without expectation of anything in return. That's basically the definition of a gift. Yet at Christmas there is definitely an expectation of something in return—we don't give gifts, we exchange. Jesus also taught that, when we give, we shouldn't make a show of it or expect recognition. "Don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing." But what have we made of our Christmas gift exchange? The biggest show of the year, a show in every home ("OK, this one is from Aunt Lily..."), a parade of charity emblazoned on billboards and full-page newspaper ads.

Perhaps the part that confused me the most when I was younger was how to find the inspiration to give gifts suddenly at a certain time of the year. Now I think I understand love better. Love doesn't appear out of nowhere at Christmas like Santa Claus; it doesn't count the days until it can express itself. Love gives when the need arises. Love appears when we encounter someone that God wants to touch and we let that healing touch work through us. But this doesn't happen according to the calendar. And we don't have to scratch our heads trying to figure out what to give. When God shows us someone in need, and we're paying attention, God also shows us what to give.

This is all lost when we make gift-giving a seasonal event, and gifts become meaningless trinkets destined to clutter someone's closets and garage (and storage locker, etc)—because no one we know really needs anything. Such a show is not a beautiful celebration of gift-giving. It is a twisting, an undermining, of the true meaning of gift.

Tomorrow: But what about St. Nick?



O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever!

Out of my distress I called on the LORD;
the LORD answered me and set me free.
With the LORD on my side I do not fear.
What can man do to me?

It is better to take refuge in the LORD
than to put confidence in man.
It is better to take refuge in the LORD
than to put confidence in princes.

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever!

(from Psalm 118)



"...is an abomination in the sight of God"

The Greek word translated "abomination" in Luke 16.15 means "a foul thing, a detestable thing." But it also has the connotation "of idols and things pertaining to idolatry." Which is perhaps why the word abomination was chosen.

"You are those who justify yourselves before men, but... what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God." (Lk 16.15)

The connection with idolatry reminded me of my recent thoughts on modern idolatry. And I can see how "what is exalted among men" is what men idolize, which tends to be the things that exalt men themselves—the worship of what we have made, the worship of our own power, the worship of ourselves. As I pointed out in my previous entries on idolatry, our modern idolatry focuses on our powerful institutions, the combined might of our social organizations.

Yesterday I happened to be thinking of this in connection with the social pressure to marry, and marriage has been on my mind, so I'll stick with that example. Marriage is actually a gift from God, a wonderfully good gift. But human societies have worked hard to take it over and use it for their own purposes. It is often even called "the institution of marriage," and is clearly treated as a human institution in practice. It must be licensed by government offices to be considered valid. It is dissolved by judges in courtrooms. It is treated as a legal status in economic dealings (including taxation). Those are the most obvious ways society has tried to make marriage its own.

Which is not surprising. Because society sees marriage and family as the basic building block for the social order (this is true in all cultures, isn't it?). This is how new people are added to the society. And marriage and family are perhaps the most persuasive influences in getting people to sell themselves into the work force (and keeping them there). Thus society needs marriage and so seeks to define and control it.

And while most young couples don't see it in this stark light, marriage is usually understood as a social act. A Christian friend of mine described the marriage ceremony as "primarily for the community." He saw it as an act of declaring the couple's commitment publicly as a promise to the community (as well as to each other), to get the blessing of the community, and so also to receive the community's assurance of support. He saw this as an acknowledgment that they needed the community to survive as a couple. And of course this attitude was highly praised when he got married. It sounds very wise and good—from the perspective of the community.

But is this what marriage is? Is it something granted by the community, by society? Is it meant to affirm our dependence on other people? Is its importance primarily social?

That's one sign on an idol: it points to itself instead of God. Marriage is a gift from God, and its joy and wonder (and creation of new life) should point to God. Like all the gifts of God, it should reaffirm our complete dependence on God. And there's so much about marriage (as we see it as symbol and analogy in scripture) that teaches us about the true meaning of our lives as relationship with God. But society has exalted the "institution" of marriage, turning our attention and dependence towards the social idol, making of it a false, detestable thing.

Thankfully, marriage need not be what we have made of it. It can be something else, something completely beyond human society, "the two become one flesh," a creation and gift of God.


"what is exalted among men..."

There were three weddings here this summer, another couple is getting married next month, and I recently heard another just got engaged. And of course everyone gets so excited and congratulatory with each new announcement and celebration.

But each new announcement has triggered an uncomfortable feeling in me. A feeling that I'm missing the boat, or being passed over and left behind. I've wondered at times if it's envy. But I don't think my feeling has much to do with these particular couples, though I do sometimes wonder about their decision, especially if the marriage seems rushed. There can be a lot of pressure to marry. I'm not thinking so much of social pressure to "legitimate" the relationship, like couples might face in other cultures (such as in Nigeria). I'm thinking of the pressure to "take the next step in life." I clearly remember one day in college thinking (with a twinge of panic) that I had better find a girlfriend soon, because college seemed like the most likely place for me to meet women and if I missed my chance there, I'd have a hard time getting married. Marriage seemed like the next big milestone in life (though Career was a big one too). And I didn't want to fail.

I felt the pressure coming from within me then. But I know I didn't dream it up myself. Society teaches us that getting married and starting a family is part of the normal course of life. It's expected. I remember talking with another unmarried friend recently, and she commented about how unmarried people don't seem valued as much (in her community). To not marry is seen as some sort of failure, an inability to progress as expected. And I wonder how much of that becomes internalized and influences young people's decision to get married. There are so many unfortunate marriages, I have to wonder.

Feeling this pressure again myself (because Heather and I don't know when or if we'll be able to get married), I was strangely comforted when I heard these words of Jesus read at breakfast:

"You are those who justify yourselves before men, but... what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God." (Lk 16.15)

Not that marriage is an abomination, of course. But that the social pressure, the social expectations that define the important milestones of life, that these are really nothing in God's sight. Or worse than nothing. I suppose Jesus' own indifference to marriage and family is worth recalling...

Far from being influenced by these expectations (or congratulations), we should become suspicious when society praises certain choices, or goals, or paths in life. As Jesus said in another place, "Woe to you, when all men speak well of you..."


stay with me

Nice surprise yesterday. A Taizé album arrived for me, a gift from Stephen. I like it very much.

One song I have to share. It's based on Jesus' words to his disciples in the garden at Gethsemane. "Stay with me, remain here with me. Watch and pray." I liked this basic chorus a lot, but the verses not so much, so I found a way to remove them (it's hard to even hear where the song was edited). It's here if you want to listen: "Stay With Me"


in te confido

I did go to the Taizé service Sunday night, at the Presbyterian church in Evanston (I also found out the nearby Methodist church has one the first Sunday of every month). Very good. Lots of candles and singing and silence in between. I especially liked this song; the words mean "Jesus Christ, in you I trust."

Here's another one I like. It's in French, so I need to get Heather to give me a good translation. But it's something like, "A desire fills our soul, to abandon ourselves to you, O Christ (You hear me, Lord)."


don't excuse me

This story was read at breakfast this morning:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable:

"What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.'

"Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." (Lk 15.1-7)

It made me think again of the conference Saturday, where there was a mix of formerly (and some currently) homeless and addicted folks along with a number of well-meaning middle class people who are trying to help. I noticed an interesting difference between them. The middle class "helpers" spoke of homelessness and addiction in terms of victimization, pointing to the negative social factors, the influence of childhood abuse and other family problems, the need for more government spending for treatment and housing. As if they were trying to make excuses for these people, or direct the blame elsewhere. But the former addicts and prostitutes who told their stories did not focus on these issues. They acknowledged family problems (though some did not have significant childhood traumas) but seemed to place most of the blame for their problems on themselves. They admitted their wrong choices, and ways they had injured others. And they described how things had changed for them when they started responding differently to the difficulties in their lives. Most even said they did not regret the hardships in their lives, since they helped bring them to an encounter with God.

This acceptance of guilt (and demonstration of their new freedom from it) comes across as very honest and true, and very inspiring. In comparison, the talk about victimization sounds hollow.

I'm sure the "helpers" felt they were being generous, trying to excuse others for their addictions and failures. But excuses don't help them. And demanding more government money doesn't address the deeper need, the spiritual healing and dependence on God that it required to restore someone's life from the inside. To find the one who is lost.

I suppose we offer what we have to give. And most of the time the best we have to offer is excuses and rationalizations and diversion of blame. That's what we give ourselves when we fail or feel at fault. I've come to realize that the poor are not worse than those with more money (and not better either). They're just as bad. It just that the faults of the poor are more apparent, their addictions more obvious, their wrongdoing more despised by society. The "more fortunate" are also chained by their faults and fears, but they have the means to pursue their obsessions in an acceptable way, the education to excuse their own behavior, and the money to cover a multitude of sins. Convinced they need no repentance, they think they can help the poor the same way. By simply telling the lost sheep he's not so lost.

The suffering poor don't need government money and magnanimous excuses. They need to see the truth about themselves and God. As we all do.


listening to one another

The best part of the conference Saturday was hearing from the people who were formerly homeless and recovering addicts. Their stories are amazing accounts about how God gets through to apparently hopeless people and is able to lift them up, and they offer powerful hope for others in similar situations.

I was reminded that the witness of these people needs to be at the center of any retreat work I (may get the chance to) do. A couple different aspects of this truth can even be directly applied in the retreat I was working on a few months ago.

For example, the central importance of listening to one another (rather than just listening to the retreat "leader"). In one of the sessions I had planned for a retreat on the woman at the well, I wrote:

...the Samaritan woman was surprised that Jesus asks her for help. Often we are reluctant to ask certain people for help, especially if they are very different from us or we do not respect them. But many times God chooses precisely these people to meet our needs, to help build respect for one another and teach us to trust those who seem strange or suspicious (or useless) to us.
I'd like to emphasize that by making discussion and listening to one another the main focus of the retreat.

And that leads into the importance of the stories of someone "who's been there." In another session, I wanted to focus on Jesus' reason for choosing the Samaritan woman to announce him to the town (when she wasn't of the highest moral standing). And I also wanted to ask about Jesus' way of showing her that he knew her faults already. One of the most important parts of a powerful witness is being honest, especially about our faults. People can identify with that. And they trust us more when they see humility and vulnerability.

If the retreatants are familiar with 12 step spirituality (and most probably will be), these points will resonate with them. But really these truths are valuable to anyone who wants to give and receive spiritual help.


"I had a spiritual life, I just didn't know it."

That was one of the lines that stood out for me on Saturday, during the ISP conference about their retreats for the homeless. A woman was telling about her struggles with addiction and homelessness and about how her former life looks different to her now. She was struggling with God all along, but didn't recognize it.

That reminded me of an experience I had at the Catholic Worker about a year ago. I'll quote from some journal entries then (during the difficult month of November):

...a woman showed up on the porch late, very drunk and crying. Her boyfriend had spend her money on drugs, money she had been saving to pay a fine that would keep her out of jail. When she got angry, he called the police and had her removed. Since she had no where else to go, they left her on our front porch.

She cried and talked for a long time. About her losses, her life of pain. And God. She said she believed in God, she believed there was a God, and she believed he hated her. She said she now understood how some women turned to prostitution, how others became criminals. Mostly I listened. And gave her some sliced turkey (she was ravenous for meat, since she had been living on noodles for quite a while). She thanked me for being a friend and eventually was able to sleep.

[For days after that] I remembered one thing that the woman kept repeating in her despairing cries that night. "...And no one cares. No one cares."
What made such a lasting impression on me was that the desire for someone to care is not an immediate physical urge or need. It's ultimately a spiritual desire. The deepest desire— to be noticed, to be cared about, by God.

A couple months later, I wrote:
One thing I have learned here is that it's not true that people can't face spiritual struggles until they have their more immediate needs met. Often it's precisely during the deepest experiences of physical need and suffering that people begin to open up spiritually.
Another man at the conference described a day in his life when his addiction and suffering drove him to the brink of suicide. It was right then, in that moment of greatest desperation, that he heard God speaking to him. "Get up and leave this place. I have something for you to do."

This is part of what makes spiritual work with the poor so attractive to me. I wonder if it's also what caused Jesus to direct his good news to the poor...


fall finery

I picked up these leaves to send to Heather, as a memento of fall. She won't see fall this year (in Nigeria). I think she has five more weeks in Africa, then a month in France for Christmas with her parents, then a very happy reunion.

In the meantime, I'll have to be satisfied with the pictures she sent me, including these of the dress she had made there, and the two kittens someone gave her. (No, they won't be coming home with her—at least that's what she tells me now...)


"like a spring whose waters never fail"

I came across this passage again this morning and thought it would fit well with my retreat concept ("living water"), so I want to remember it:

"If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.

"The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail." (Is 58.9-11)

Speaking of retreats, the Jesuits at Loyola invited me to their presentation tomorrow on retreats for the homeless. I'm looking forward to that, both to see what they've come up with and to get to know them better.


beati voi poveri

This was a comfort yesterday. It's a Taizé chant I found while exploring their website. Beautiful. Click here to hear it sung (in Latin).

Taizé music would be good for use in retreats. I found a nearby church that has a taizé service this coming Sunday night; I think I'll go.


for election day

Do you indeed decree what is right, you mighty lords?
Do you judge people fairly?
No, in your hearts you devise wrongs;
your hands deal out violence on earth. (Ps 58.1-2)


"voting is... collective coercion"

As the mudslinging gets ever nastier and people start scratching their heads trying to figure out which evil is lesser so they can vote for it, I'm struggling with my usual election season bad mood. Maybe it will help to bring this out again, from my journal six years ago...

I found several interesting passages about government and voting in G.K. Chesterton's book, What's Wrong with the World. For example:
This is the first essential element in government, coercion; a necessary but not a noble element.
What's especially interesting is that Chesterton believes in government; he believes it's unavoidable. He may call political institutions ugly, or consider them the result of evil, but he takes them to be necessary evils. That makes his evaluation seem more fair and honest to me. And I think many people who understand politics and history would agree with him. Even I agree with him, in his critique of "ugly" government (it's the necessity I don't accept—if we could only get rid of the malicious fallacy of "necessary evil" maybe we would stop forcing that evil on others!).

As Chesterton continues to describe the ugliness of government, he also considers the unique ugliness of democracy (though he is a strong supporter of democracy, as the lesser evil):
All government then is coercive; we happen to have created a government which is not only coercive; but collective. ...in self-governing countries the coercion of criminals is a collective coercion. The abnormal person is theoretically thumped by a million fists and kicked by a million feet. If a man is flogged we all flogged him; if a man is hanged, we all hanged him. That is the only possible meaning of democracy.... In a republic all punishment is as sacred and solemn as lynching.
I've thought about the coercive aspect of democracy before. We usually see democracy as non-coercive, since it is "rule by the people." But "the people" are not all of one mind. The usual result is rule by the majority, with their decisions being forced upon all others. As Chesterton pointed out, the "abnormal person" is subdued or silenced by the mob—by collective coercion. We take that to be a good thing in the case of wrong-doers; but the same treatment is also given to saints and prophets, who are abnormal in the opposite way.

Another great line:
Voting is not only coercion, but collective coercion.
Through the process of voting, people in a democracy take responsibility for their own government. This is considered a "right." But is government something we want to take responsibility for? Are coercion and lynching what we want to take responsibility for? We allow people to govern themselves rather than having to obey the will of a despot, but then all the people gather together to become despotic.

Especially during this election time, I hear and read about "getting involved," "changing the system for the better." We're supposed to improve things by exercising our voting rights and using the power we've been granted. We're told we can make government better by being a part of it. But I don't see that happening. What I do see is people supporting political candidates they don't really believe in because that candidate is the "lesser of two evils" or the only one who has a chance to win. I see people manipulated by the media to support someone that those in power have selected (either of the mainstream candidates). I see people being dragged (or enticed) into a very ugly political institution. And they're told it's a right, a privilege, a sacred duty. Ugh. If people want to subject themselves to the coercion of government, fine. If people decide to take part in the governmental coercion of others, that's bad, but worse for themselves. But to try to convince other people to join the mob is the worst.

Joining government is not the way to make things better. Being better ourselves, and being a good example for others is the best way. And part of that is to stop pushing other people around. Stop trying to MAKE THEM be good. Jesus' life was a continual practice of non-coercion—turning the other cheek, not resisting the evil person, enduring death rather than calling down a legion of angels—so that people's hearts might be converted. That's love, that's goodness—not government.


"we can no longer say..."

I came across this yesterday...

When Thomas Aquinas first visited Rome, and expressed his amazement at all the wealth he saw [as many non-western Christians might be amazed at the wealth of our churches], the Pope said, "We can no longer say, 'Silver and gold have I none."

"No, indeed," was the answer, "nor can we say, 'What I have I give you: In the name of Jesus of Nazareth rise up and walk.'"


the commitment to love

"The commitment to God is the commitment to love." But what is love?

I've written about love before. But I'd like to specifically focus on "If you love me you'll do what I want." Most people recognize something wrong in this crude, manipulative demand, and would never say such a thing. But several times I've been told that love means doing what someone else wants, simply because they want it, no matter what what I think about that desire.

This is a very common understanding of love. The idea is that we are to set aside our own will and take on the will of the loved one, making their desires and intentions our own. This is promoted as loving selflessness. And it may be selfless, in a way.

But is it truly loving? When the desires of the loved one are self-destructive, it soon becomes obvious that it's not loving to help them pursue those desires. Then we become aware that love is not just an interaction between two people.

Real love necessarily involves God. There cannot be any true love without God, because God is love. As we come to experience this, we discover that love is not setting aside our own will to take on the will of another person, but setting aside our will to obey God's will for the loved one, and for ourself. We take on God's desire (which may or may not coincide with the desire of either of the people involved), and God's desire is always good. For everyone involved.

This is the love we commit ourselves to, when we commit ourselves to God. If we try to "love" by taking on another person's will, we will soon find ourselves torn between pleasing that person and pleasing God. But if we commit ourselves only to the God who is love, then we can remain single-mindedly, whole-heartedly God's, and also be most available for, and dedicated to the greatest good of, those we love.

So how do I work this into my wedding vows...