Archive for January, 2014

Not to be a Pollyanna, but…

As a child, I absolutely loved the 1960’s Disney movie Pollyanna with Hayley Mills.  There was something about the hope and joy that this little girl brought into the life of so many people that spoke to my heart.

It’s easily been 20 years since I’ve seen the movie, but one of the bits of dialogue that always stuck with me had to do with the message about “glad” and “sad” pieces of Scripture.

Pollyanna innocently and gently mentions to the Reverend–whose weekly sermons had been filled with fire and brimstone–how her father had noted over 800 verses in the Bible in which God tells us to rejoice or be glad or be happy.  If the Lord took the trouble to tell us 800 times that he wants us to rejoice, then He must really mean it.*

These days, to accuse someone of being “a Pollyanna” implies being naively optimistic.  But I think she was on to something.  And I think that an inordinate focus on the fire and brimstone messages of Scripture does damage to people’s faith.  Whether I’m talking with an 83 year old woman on a retreat, a group of high school kids in a theology class, or a mom in her mid 30’s over a glass of wine, I find that people’s faith has been scarred by a fear of God and the threat of hell.

I’m not alone in rejecting the inordinate focus on fire and brimstone messages.  But many have swung so far to the opposite side that they have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, so to say, rejecting either God or hell or both.

If God is all loving and forgiving, then how can there be anyone in hell?

I suppose that’s why eschatology, the theological term for the “last four things” (heaven, hell, purgatory, and judgment), is one of my favorite topics to teach about.  A renewed understanding of heaven, hell, and judgment is so healing for so many people.

Imagery

Most people’s understanding of how heaven, hell, and judgment work is a cartoon-ized version of the following:


20140115215105Upon death, we imagine standing before the pearly gates.  St. Peter looks at the big thick book on his podium.  All of the good and all of the bad we have ever done is weighed on some cosmic scale; whichever way the scale tips determines our destiny.  If the scale tips “good,” then the pearly gates open, choirs of angels sing, and we enter heaven.  If the scale tips “bad,” then the trap door opens beneath our feet and we descend down to the fiery pits of hell.  

That simplistic imagery might work for cartoon and comic artists, but it’s lousy theology and everyone knows it.  So why is it so pervasive?  From a religious education perspective, it engages our religious imagination, even if it’s unhealthy.  So rather than just replacing that cartoon-ized imagery with the language of good theology,  I’d like to offer some different imagery that opens us to healthier theology.

Upon the moment of your death, imagine you walk in to a IMAX theatre equipped with a great big sofa in the middle of the room.  Who is sitting on this sofa?  The Almighty and Ever-Loving God.  You take a seat next to the Divine Presence, and God puts a Divine arm around your shoulder.  The lights dim, and the instant the movie starts, you immediately recognize it as the story of your life.  As it plays, you notice that for every good you have done, God squeezes your arm and lovingly whispers Thank you!  For all the harmful or hurtful things you said or did… all times you should have done something but didn’t… you notice a tear roll down the Divine face.  You realize that your thoughts, words, actions, and inactions have hurt God.  You. Have. Hurt. God.  Notice how that realization feels.  

As the movie of your life continues, you also notice that any of those instances that you have expressed sincere remorse for–the ones you have sought forgiveness for in the Sacrament of Reconciliation–do not make it in to the movie, as if God does not feel the need to rehash it.  

The movie ends, the lights come up, God turns to look at you and you realize you are now faced with a choice. 

  • You can look into God’s loving eyes, take responsibility, apologize, and seek forgiveness… to which God will reply, “Child, you are already forgiven.  Welcome home!”

Or…

  • You can refuse to accept the Truth of what you have made of your life.  You can rationalize, making excuses and justifying your behavior.  You can simply get up and walk out, choosing to believe your own version of events, indifferent to God.   In effect, you can reject God and, in doing so, choose hell.

Heaven

God wants heaven for us.  God wants us to choose heaven.  Rather than thinking of heaven as some playground in the sky, think of heaven as being in the complete and total presence of God.  United with God in heaven is the fulfillment of all longing, of our deepest desires.  This is the beatific vision–seeing God’s face.  This joy is paradise! A wedding feast! (See CCC, 1023-1029.)

But God is God.  And Truth is Truth.  And we must choose: God’s Truth or your own version of truth.

Hell

It is in rejecting God and God’s Truth that a person chooses hell.  If heaven is being completely and fully in God’s presence, hell is complete isolation from God.  (See CCC, 1033-1037.)  We have no idea what complete isolation from God is like.  Our lives are imbued with the presence of God.  The grace of the Holy Spirit permeates our lives so much so that we don’t even have a concept of what complete isolation from God really means.  

They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. (Matthew 13:42)

The images of heaven and hell in Scripture are intended to conjure relateable ideas, not provide a literal description.  A fiery furnace… have you ever been badly burned?  My sister has.  She spent two weeks in the pediatric unit of the burn center of New Jersey when she was 10.  Every day burn patients would need to spend time in the “tank room” where the raw skin in their wounds is scrubbed clean of debris so as to prevent infection; it’s more painful than most of us can imagine.  A fiery furnace where clothing melts into skin… Isolation from God feels like that.

Purgatory

But what if you’re the sort of person who needs time to process the difficult Truths you faced.  You want to take responsibility, you just need time to think and come to terms with things.  This is where purgatory comes in.  Purgatory is most emphatically not a punishment (see CCC, 1031), but rather Church tradition calls it a time of purification.

To use some traditional vocabulary terms: thus far, I have been describing what Church tradition refers to as “particular judgment,” or when each individual person is judged, they end up either heaven, hell or purgatory (CCC, 1022).  Ultimately, there will come a time for all decisions to be made… the process of purification will need to be completed at some point; purgatory is not an eternal option.  This is what we know as the “last judgment” and the Second Coming at the end of time (CCC 1038-1041).  So we’ve got some time if we need it… just not forever.  

But…

One of the things I always loved about teaching adolescents is their willingness to ask the difficult, uncomfortable questions that everyone is wondering.

But if all we need to do is ask for God’s forgiveness in the end and “choose heaven,” then what’s the point of being good?  Why not just do whatever you want and ask forgiveness later?

This is the question that transitions the discussion from eschatology (heaven, hell, purgatory, and judgment) to morality, which will be discussed in another post.  But it’s an important question that deserves an answer here.

Have you ever run a marathon?  I have.  All 26.2 miles.  I never imagined I could do it.  I never used to run. (I don’t actually run now, either.)  But I did it with the help of my husband who mapped out the six months of daily training.  From barely being able to run 2 miles without wanting to die, we trained and trained and trained.  And in October 2003, I finished the Marine Corps Marathon alongside my then fiance, now husband.

After

The moral life is much like the training for the marathon of eschatology.  Is it possible for someone who sits on the couch all day, every day eating cheetos to wake up the next morning and finish a marathon?  Our faith calls us to say, Yes – it is possible.  But not probable.  I don’t know about you, but that “possibility” is not something I’m willing to rest my eternity on, either.  Moral behavior is that training that helps us develop the quality of character who can–in the end–say yes to God.

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You Keep Using That Word

For the longest time, when I’d hear the word evangelization, I’d crinkle my nose, thinking it meant proselytizing.  I knew my Church, my faith, my God “called” me to do this thing called evangelization, but really, I’d rather not.   The thing is that the popes, starting with Paul VI, then JP II, then Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis keep writing and preaching about the “new evangelization.” Not only was this “evangelization” thing not going away, each of these popes keep renewing our call to do it.  (More uncomfortable shifting in my chair.)

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Turns out my understanding of evangelization was off.  Way off.  Well kind of off.

Background

Let’s start with a better understanding of evangelization; a definition which honors the intention, style, and practice of the apostles.  Evangelization is about kindling the burning desire for God in our hearts.

From the beginning, evangelization meant bringing the Good News of the Gospel to every corner of the earth.  The call to do this is in Scripture (at the very end of the Gospel of Matthew), and we call it The Great Commission.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:16-20)

Historically, we have limited our understanding of evangelization to the missionary work of bringing the Good News to people who have never before heard it.  Which, in itself, is fine (if the ones sharing the message are, in fact, sharing what Jesus taught, how he taught it: with love; without force).

However, evangelization was never meant to be equated with the forceful, negative, judgmental practice of proselytizing.  Because, as you may know, that’s not how Jesus did things.

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Evangelization is about kindling the burning desire for God in our hearts.  Proselytizing is focused on the surface experience of getting someone to agree with you that your religion, belief, or opinion is the right one.  We are not called to proselytize.  We are called to evangelize.

Renewed Understanding

Even better, the “new evangelization” that all these popes have talked about explicitly recognizes that there are actually three distinct groups in need of evangelization:

  1. NEVER BEFORE – those who have never before heard the Good News
  2. ONCE MORE – those who are regular, committed faithful who are in need of rekindling their passion for God.  For many, the fire is there, but it wanes.  For others, it’s less of a fire and more of a flame.
  3. THIS TIME WITH FEELING – those who (for whatever reason) have left the Church and are “searching” for something… are considering coming back… are unsure…  and are in need of kindling that passion, as well as direction, education, healing, etc.

Each of us falls somewhere in here.  Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re somewhere between #2 and #3.  Think about that: Where on this continuum would you place yourself?

How

What I love most about this renewed understanding of evangelization is that there are many, many legitimate ways to evangelize.

Start with yourself.  Ask yourself: What fuels my own passion for God? And then (presuming it’s life-giving and loving) do that thing.  Here’s a list of ideas:

  • Go do service (visit the sick or elderly, help the homeless, build homes at Habitat for Humanity)
  • Participate in your Church (sing, read, serve, pray, adore)
  • Learn about your faith – see what classes or book studies you could participate in
  • Spend time being intentionally present to your friends, family, children, siblings, and parents.  Nurture relationships.
  • Do the thing God called you to do–that thing that fills your heart–and praise God for joy
  • Go on a retreat
  • Spend time in nature, thanking God for the gift of Creation
  • What else would you add to this list

Because the funny thing about evangelization is that it’s contagious.  When you tend to the fire within your own heart, your passion for God spills out into the hearts of others.

So what will you to today to kindle the fire of your passion for God?

Change Anything, Change Everything

My LEGO loving boys have been watching the Ninjago series on Netflix.  One recent episode captured more of my attention than I would readily admit in certain social circles.

In the episode “Wrong Place, Wrong Time,” the bad guy (Lord Garmadon) wishes that the good guys (Ninjas) never existed, so he goes back in time to make it so.  The Ninjas follow him, intending to save the day, but are warned by their mentor (Sensei Wu) that if they change anything, they change everything.

The episode reminded me of a conversation I had with my Grandmom in one of her last visits to my house.

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“Kid, there were some difficult times in my life.  I’ll tell you.  1936 was hard.  Extremely hard.  But let me just say this: I have no regrets.  Isn’t that something?  At my age [83]?  No regrets.”  She paused and turned to look at me, “Can you say the same for yourself? Do you have any regrets?”

I looked at her with tears in my eyes.  “No.  I can’t say that.  I do have a huge regret.  My first marriage was a huge mistake.  I regret that it ever happened.  I regret making that choice.  With every fiber of my being, I regret that.”

Grandmom does this vice grip pinch of my upper arm with surprising strength for a feeble old lady and tells me, “I’m not saying I never made any mistakes.  Kid, I made plenty of mistakes.  PLENTY.  Ask anyone.  I’m talking REGRETS.”

“I know, Grandmom.  I do.  I wish it wasn’t a regret.  But it is.”

“I hope one day you change your mind.  I hope one day you can get to my age and say that you have no regrets.  Because that’s really something.”

Grandmom died December 8, 2011, still having no regrets.

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So as I sat in the dining room, sipping my tea and finishing breakfast, I hear Sensei Wu tell the Ninjas that if you change anything, you change everything. And I finally got it.

Regret and Remorse

Regret and remorse are two different things.  I have sincere remorse for the series of well-intentioned, yet ill-informed decisions that led to one of the lowest point in my life.  I am deeply sorry.  The turmoil, crisis, depression… I am very sorry.

But Grandmom was talking about the kind of regret that wipes the event off the face of the earth.  And as Sensei Wu said, change anything, change everything.

My husband… my boys… my friends… my community… my personal and spiritual growth… No.  I don’t want to risk changing who, and what, and where I am now.  So I’m making peace with how I got here.

I’m getting closer to telling Grandmom, “No. I don’t have any regrets.”  And I hear her saying, “That’s good, kid.  That’s great!”  (Though, the imaginary vice grip hurts a lot less than the real one.)

A Caveat – on Divine Providence and Evil 

As I note that I wouldn’t trade any of the goodness in my life, even to remove my deepest remorse, I feel the need to address one of my personal pet peeves.  The expression “Everything happens for a reason.”  I hate it.

Imagine a rape survivor hearing that.  Or a Holocaust survivor.

I want to think that the sentiment people are trying to express is one of hope… but something gets lost in the translation.

Allow me to get all Catholic on you and pull out my Catechism.  In the section on Divine Providence and the Scandal of Evil (See CCC, 309-314), the Catechism lays it out:

  • God is all good
  • God does not cause evil to happen
  • Evil happens

Then, paragraph CCC, 311 quotes St. Augustine:

For almighty God…because he is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself.

So God didn’t cause the bad things to happen to you or me or anyone else.  Everything happens for a reason?  NO!

It’s more like: When life gives you lemons, God–as only God can do–makes the best divine lemonade you could possibly imagine.

God–and only God–can transform evil into something good.  I mean look what he did with the Crucifixion.  That’s some pretty good Divine Lemonade right there.

I digress.

And I hope you don’t have any regrets either.  Let’s all make Grandmom proud.

That’s No Ordinary Shepherd

Think about the best teacher, leader, or boss you’ve ever worked with.  Who was it?  What was it that made them such a good leader?  On the flip-side, think about that experience with someone who was a rather poor leader, teacher, or boss?  What were the characteristics or behaviors that made it so?

A few months ago, I was preparing to teach two separate groups of people two different distinct lessons:  during the day, a Godly Play session on “The Good Shepherd” for 3-6 year olds at my kids’ Montessori school and later that night, a Catechism class for adults on the Sacraments.   What I thought were two different lessons turned out to be an opportunity to gain a deeper insight by looking at them together.

The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd story from Godly Play weaves several Scripture passages into one story, primarily from Psalm 23, John 10:1-16, and the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:12-14, Luke 15:1-7).

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.  (Psalm 23:1-4)

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that 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. (Luke 15:4-7)

 ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. (John 10:11-13)

The words and materials used to tell the story of the Good Shepherd are very intentional, but not identical to the translation we may be used to hearing at Mass or reading in the Bible.  Therein, they communicate the underlying truth to children in a remarkable way.  The Good Shepherd loves, cares for, and leads his sheep.  He protects them and looks for them when they are lost.

The storyteller explains the Good Shepherd’s relationship with his sheep, and then introduces “the ordinary shepherd” who neither knows their names nor leads them.  Instead, the sheep wander and scatter.  The story concludes by driving home the distinction between the Good Shepherd and the ordinary shepherd:

When the wolf comes, the ordinary shepherd runs away. But the Good Shepherd stands between the wolf and his sheep–and even gives his life for his sheep–so the sheep can go safely home.

When the children–ages 3-6–first began discussing the story, I noticed that they kept talking about the Good Shepherd and the bad shepherd.  Had I been listening alongside, I may have made the same mistake.

But that’s the thing: the “wolf” is the bad guy in the story.  It is the ordinary shepherd that Jesus distinguishes himself from.

Sacraments

Later that night I taught my Catechism for Adults class, covering the chapter on Liturgy which sets the stage for talking about Sacraments; after all, every Sacrament occurs within a liturgy.  It is not just the gestures and substance which make for the Sacrament; it is also the prayers we say and the Word of God we read in Scripture that makes it a real gift of God’s grace.

The word liturgy comes from a Greek term meaning “public work or work done on behalf of the people.” Liturgy always referred to an organized community. A work, then, done by an individual or a group was a liturgy on behalf of the larger community. All the worshipers are expected to participate actively in each liturgy, for this is holy “work,” not entertainment or a spectator event. Every liturgical celebration is an action of Christ the High Priest and of his Mystical Body, which is the Church. It therefore requires the participation of the People of God in the work of God.

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) (2012-04-02). United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (Kindle Locations 2570-2574). United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Kindle Edition.

When it comes to celebrating the Sacraments, one of the most basic questions that we need to answer is Who celebrates the liturgy.  Unfortunately, we usually get the answer wrong by saying “the priest.”  Who celebrates the liturgy?  We all do.  The entire Body of Christ.

Liturgy is not private prayer, but public, requiring “full, conscious and active participation” of all faithful (CCC 1141, SC 14).

The idea that all of us are expected to participate actively in each liturgy, and that this is holy “work,” not entertainment or a spectator event is a vital understanding to bring to any study of both the Liturgy and the Sacraments.

Too often, we approach Mass as a spectator sport.  And it’s not.

We judge the value of the liturgy by the quality of the homily and/or the music.  And we miss the point.

Moreover, when we translate that “spectator sport” mentality into the Sacraments, we set ourselves up to treat Sacramental grace like some sort of magic to befall instead of the gift of God’s grace that they are.

A lot of these attitudes have to do with our expectations of leadership.

Leadership

Recall the questions above: think about the experiences you have had throughout your life with leaders: teachers, bosses, managers, and the like.  Think about the characteristics and qualities of good leaders.  Good leaders…

  • Take the time, effort, and energy to teach and empower people
  • Encourage creativity
  • Appreciate individual strengths
  • Facilitate growth
  • Allow people to make mistakes and learn from them
  • Practice good communication skills, both in expressing themselves and in understanding others
  • Care about their people
  • Value responsibility, honesty, integrity, and hard work
  • Offer assistance when needed
  • Create atmospheres of mutual respect
  • Approaches leadership as form of service [servant-leader]
  • Has a big-picture sense of mission and vision
  • Can you add to this list?

On the flip side, we find it easy to complain about “poor” leaders:

  • Micro-manage every aspect of people’s work
  • Overly strict
  • Diminish freedom and creativity
  • Make people feel small and insignificant – like a replaceable cog in the wheel
  • Control others through fear or manipulation
  • Non-communicative
  • Self-centered, arrogant, and egotistical
  • Narrow-Minded
  • Can you add to this list?

Notice this list describes the “poor” leader.  Not the “bad” leaders with malicious intent or “evil” dictators.

Take it to the next step.  Recall the description of the Good Shepherd; see how the list of characteristics of the Good Leader help flesh out the way in which Jesus as the Good Shepherd leads us.

Now look at the description of the poor leader and notice how it reflects the ordinary shepherd.

The Connection

When it comes to our understanding of Liturgy and Sacraments, it is very important that we check in with our expectations: Do we expect the priest to micromanage our experience of Liturgy and Sacraments, making it happen for us?  Or do we enter into the experience of Liturgy and Sacraments expecting the leadership of the Good Shepherd who empowers us to participate in receiving God’s grace?

The Sacraments are not magical things that happen to us.

One way to think about the empowering leadership of the Good Shepherd is to think of the Sacraments with what’s been called a bumper-sticker theology:

Without us, God won’t.  

Without God, we can’t.

Without us, God won’t. Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  He does not micromanage our experience of faith.  He invites us to participate with him in the transforming power of God’s grace.

Without God, we can’t.  We need God’s grace.  We cannot do it without God’s help.

The Good Shepherd wants to lead you.  But to really make it work, you’ve got to want it too.

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