Archive for February, 2014

You Don’t Have to be the Bad Guy

With two Lego-loving boys in the house, there was little doubt that we would see The Lego Movie.  The previews looked cute, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the movie I genuinely liked.  It was fun, funny, and playful, and you can’t leave the theatre without singing “Everything is Awesome!”

There’s one scene that struck upon a deep theological truth.  Short of being a spoiler alert for those who haven’t yet seen it, I’ll simply say that in the battle between good and evil, good wins.  It’s not just that good wins, but what happens next.  Tucked in to the last moments of the movie is a conversion story, where the protagonist (Emmett) tells the antagonist (President/Lord Business):

You don’t have to be the bad guy.”  

The characters take a moment to carefully consider their responses, and of course good wins. But I love how the movie drives home the idea of choice.  You don’t have to be the bad guy.  You can choose.

In some ways, this scene reminded me of the conversion of Darth Vader in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.  In the battle of good and evil, Luke is convinced that there is still good within his father.  The moment of conversion from Darth Vader back to Anakin Skywalker is the unexpected and almost unbelievable climax of the film, which leads to the triumph of good.

So many of the stories we watch and read (and show-to and tell our children) involve good triumphing over evil.  It’s rare to see a story of conversion, however. Usually, the bad guys are dismissed as evil and defeated (and often humiliated by the victor).

Yet it’s these stories of conversion that pervade Scripture, particularly as a major theme of Jesus’ teaching.

  • Think about the stories you’ve read or movies you’ve watched lately.  Are they stories of conversion or defeat-and-dismiss?

Paschal Mystery

Catholics use a lot of words and phrases that we don’t always stop to unpack and explain.  One of these is “the Paschal Mystery.”  I’m pretty sure that as a child I resigned myself to not understanding what it meant because as it says, it’s a mystery.

The Paschal Mystery refers to the Passion (suffering and death), Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus.

The very essence of Christian faith revolves around the fact that the suffering and death of Jesus was not the end of the story.  Rather, from His death, comes new life–in the Resurrection.

Death is not the end.  From death to new life.

It is a mystery because we do not understand how it happens.  But it does.  And in this mystery we find our salvation: death is not the end.

Moreover, it’s not just something that happened to Jesus.  God’s transforming power in the Paschal Mystery happens in our lives every day.  We see the cycles of from-death-to-new-life when we recover from brokenness, whether it is physical, emotional, spiritual, or even financial.

In the post Change Anything, Change Everything, I talked about my biggest regret mistake–my failed first marriage.  After that marriage ended, I was broken.  Shattered.  Depressed.  Eventually, I picked up the shattered pieces of my life, moved half-way across the country, and with the loving help of my family, an excellent therapist, and the right anti-depressant, I worked on healing and rebuilding.  And by the Grace of God, I healed.  I grew.  I matured.  I am not the same person I once was.  From-death-to-new-life, the Paschal Mystery is alive in me.

  • What are some of your own experiences of death-to-new-life?  How is the Paschal Mystery alive in you?
  • Where in the Paschal Mystery are you now: the suffering and death of the Passion on Good Friday?  The in-between of Holy Saturday?  New life in the Resurrection of Easter Sunday?  

Lent is Coming


Ash Wednesday is around the corner, which marks the beginning of Lent.  Lent is a term derived from a word meaning “spring” or “springtime,” the season where we see nature go from death-to-new-life.  Like Jesus’ time in the desert, it is a journey of 40 days.

Theological Geek Moment (also known as “an interesting aside”):  Jesus wandered the desert for 40 days; Moses for 40 years; Noah wandered the waters for 40 days…  Ever wonder why 40?  For the ancient peoples, the number “4” carried the significance of an “earthly” meaning.  We have four seasons, the four directions (North, South, East, and West), the four elements of the body, and so on.  The number “10” means “a great many,” and the more zero’s the greater the many.  So the number 40 signifies a great many days/years, all over the earth.  The number “3” signifies divinity (not just the Trinity, but think about all the times when people in Scripture were selected in groups of threes).  When “3” and “4” – heaven and earth – come together, it signifies perfection and completion.  Numerically, this happens in two ways: 3 + 4 = 7 and 3 x 4 = 12.  Thus, 7 days of Creation, forgiving 7 times 70 times, the 12 Tribes of Israel, the 12 Apostles… a perfectly, complete number.

Getting back to Lent… Lent is literally a 40 day period, but since it’s 6 1/2 weeks, it doesn’t look like 40 days on the calendar.  There are 46 days from Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, but the six Sundays during Lent are not counted because we dedicate Sundays to celebrating the Resurrection.

Ash Wednesday sets us up for this Lenten journey, marking our foreheads with ashes and telling us to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” The focus of Lent, Vatican II reminds us, is Baptism–either preparing to for the Sacrament of Baptism or preparing to take seriously the renewal of our baptismal promises at Easter.  Therein, the focus of Lent is conversion.  A death-to-new-life, turning away from sin.

Giving Something Up

As a child, I understood Lent as a time to give something up like soda or candy, but in my teen years, this felt very pedantic.  It felt like I was approaching Lent as a practice of self-denial so as to suffer.  Because Jesus suffered.

The Paschal Mystery is at the heart of our faith, and yes it involves suffering.  The Passion of Jesus refers to his suffering and death on Good Friday.  That’s an important part of the Paschal Mystery, but the story doesn’t end on Good Friday.  With a Paschal Mystery spirituality, Lenten practices are never about suffering for the sake of suffering.

Asceticism is an ancient practice that means self-denial or abstaining from worldly pleasures.  (Note that “asceticism” is distinct from the similar sounding “aesthetic” which means beauty.)  It is an opportunity to take something that we may be somewhat addicted to (like candy or soda or tv or electronic devices or Facebook), take that obsessive energy and instead direct it towards God.  When we find ourselves thinking about (or craving) that “thing,” we are presented with a built-in reminder to focus on God.  Ascetic practices serve to open us to new life in God.

Some people choose to take something up or do something positive rather than give something up.  In a manner of speaking, a person might give up their “free time” to attend daily mass.  But it’s deeper than that.  With a Pashcal Mystery spirituality, the aim is conversion; new life in Christ that honors our Baptismal promises.

Perhaps this involves giving up a sinful behavior; reminding ourselves “You don’t have to be a bad guy.”  Perhaps this involves intentionally practicing virtuous behavior.

  • Is there a Lenten practice that you could do to give up a sinful behavior or take up a virtuous behavior?

Somewhere Along the Line

I met Peter through a friend of a friend at a party, before heading out to see some bands play at South By Southwest.  I was attracted to the trifecta of cute, smart, and funny that he had going on.  As we got to know each other, I was shocked to find out that a month before we met, he had run a marathon and completed a 50 mile bike race, and was about to do a triathlon.  He had an average-guy build–a little bit of a beer belly–and didn’t look like an athlete; I could not fathom how he could possibly do those things.

More than my unhelpful preconceived notions of what an athlete looks like, I had sized up the end-result of all his training efforts as impossible: there is no way I could run 26.2 miles, no less swim 1/2 mile, then bike 12 miles, then run 3 miles.  Just no.

I saw athleticism as haves-and-havenots (and I was a havenot).  Like a light switch: it was either on or off, but no in-between.

But Peter didn’t see what I saw.  He saw a training schedule.  He saw daily steps along a path.  He saw incremental progress building up until he could confidently complete something amazing.  Peter’s  way of seeing things inspired me.  He was a regular guy that did a marathon and a triathlon; if he could do it, I could do it.  So I did.


The following year, I completed my first Danskin Triathlon – an all-women’s series that cultivates an environment of encouragement.  The swim went okay–though I’m a strong swimmer, I was ill-prepared for fifteen pairs of feet in my face.  Towards the end of the 12 mile bike ride, I faced what felt like the largest hill I had ever seen.  I wasn’t even halfway up, and I was ready to dismount and walk to the top.  But in front of me were two plump, middle-aged women, ever-so-slowly biking up-up-up, and encouraging every single person around them.  Not only were they not giving up, but they weren’t letting anyone else give up either.  “You go girl!  You got this!”  Once their words of support and love reached me, I firmed my resolve to just keep pedaling.  Tears welled as I shouted to these women “You two are amazing!  Thank you!  YOU GO!!”  And I was off, finishing the bike and then the run.

The back of the medal that each woman receives upon crossing the finish line sums up my experience with profound truth: The woman who starts the race is not the same woman who finishes the race.


What are some of the areas in your life that you might have unhelpful preconceived notions?


As ignorant as I was about fitness and training, I am very familiar with how damaging unhelpful preconceived notions can be in the world of religious education, particularly the haves and havenots mentality when it comes to the topic of virtue.  If you google the definition of virtue, you can see why many people approach it as a light switch, either on or off, but no in-between.

definition of virtue - Google Search - Google Chrome 252014 13442 PM.bmp

Emily lamented in a Facebook post about how unhelpful this preconceived notion can be.

Julie Dienno-Demarest - Google Chrome 252014 124907 PM.bmp

I don’t necessarily think Google got the definition wrong, but I do think there’s a much more helpful way of thinking about virtue.

Virtue is like a good habit that we can become better at doing.  It’s less about haves and havenots and more like a muscle that gets stronger (or weaker).  Developing virtue is like training for a race; it’s about practicing these good habits over the course of time.  When we want to form a good habit–or break a bad habit–we take incremental steps towards a goal.

When you think of virtue, imagine a gradation or a continuum of stronger-to-weaker.  See a training schedule.  See daily steps along a path.  See incremental progress building up until you can confidently complete something amazing.  Think of saints and the lives of people who inspire you.

Virtue Arrows

Recall a time when you were making a change–or trying to improve at something.  What helped you practice good habits?  How did you overcome bad habits?

The Virtue of Faith

Traditionally, a discussion of virtue touches upon the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance) and three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love).  Of these seven virtues, faith seems to be the one people have the most unhelpful preconceived notions about.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God. (Ephesians 2:8)

Too often, we misunderstand the idea that faith is a gift, and perpetuate the have-havenot or light-switch attitude.  

Yes, faith is a gift: God invites us to know, love, and serve him.  The gift is the invitation.  Practicing the virtue of faith is our response.

Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

The virtue of faith is concerned with strengthening three areas:

  1. Belief – the intellectual understanding of and assent to what we believe
  2. Spirituality – the emotional trust in and relationship with God      
  3. Discipleship – living one’s faith out in life, following through with moral actions and a commitment to justice  

Sometimes these three dimensions are referred to as the head (belief), heart (spirituality), and hands (discipleship).

Head Heart Hands

A person can be stronger or weaker in any one of the three areas.  Developing the virtue of faith means that we are called to work on strengthening each of these three areas in our lives.

At 16, Becca admitted that she was struggling with her faith.  But when she began thinking of this virtue as having three areas, she saw that her life was already aligned with God’s will in many ways.  Her struggles were mostly in the area of belief.  Her relationship with God actually began to heal once she was able to see herself as having one of the dimensions of faith.  

Consider your own practice of the virtue of faith.  

  • For each of the three dimensions of faith, where on the continuum of stronger–weaker would you place yourself?
  • What is one thing you could do to work on strengthening each area?

When it comes to strengthening our practice of virtue, truly: The woman who starts the race is not the same woman who finishes the race.

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