Monday, June 27, 2011

Happy 4th of July! or "We hold these truths to be self evident..."

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
-Declaration of Independence, July 4th 1776

These simple phrases, penned over 235 years ago created our nation. The people of the United States of America, (before it was the United States of America, of course) were pushed to revolution because they were being denied freedoms which, they stated, were endowed upon us by God. Now I will readily admit that the Americans of that day were a little off track when it came to protecting God-given freedoms. We were a nation that still supported slavery, even by some of the men who wrote those words. A wrong that would not be addressed for almost another hundred years, and the residue of which, still affects us to this day.

So recently, I was listening to a radio show talking about the Transportation Safety Administration's pat-down of an 18 month old child (that was last week's story, before this week's story of a 95 year old leukemia patient) and a gentleman called in and pointed out that we were in trouble as a nation when we move away from the concept that these rights are 'endowed by our Creator', because we no longer think that people are entitled to those rights objectively. To be honest, the guy sounded a little crazy. The more I thought about it, however, I realized that although his tone was a little wacky, his idea was a pretty sound one. He ended the call by saying that in the end, we would only keep the rights we fought for, because if we didn't fight for them, then why do we deserve them?

Interestingly, the two 'victims' of the TSA are a perfect example of the flaw in this system. You see, when we only support the rights of those who can fight for them, we limit the freedoms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to those who are strong enough, or powerful enough to defend their own rights. And those who are fighting, better have a good reason why their freedoms benefit everyone else, because you cannot fight without any ammunition (figuratively speaking, of course). In short, we descend into a utilitarian society. "Why should the state allow you to do what you want to do? What can you offer?" The judgement is then up to the subjective will of, well....... who? I guess that is the question. When we lose sight of the fact that these rights are given to us by our Creator, we leave the decision up to somebody else, don't we?

But that is not where we came from. We are a nation founded on the premise that we are all entitled to these rights, not because we earned them, not because we can contribute 'enough' to be worthy of them, but because our Creator, our God, made us all free. The concept is very old. God could easily have created Adam and Eve to only obey Him, only do what he wanted, but He didn't. He made them free. They made a mess of things, and His chosen people continued not listening to Him, but he freed them from slavery in Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land. He was just, and He reprimanded them, but he didn't leave His people. Later, even though we were all sinners, He sent Jesus, his only begotten son, to die for our sins. Did we deserve it? Had we earned it? Do we serve God 'enough' to be worthy of such a sacrifice? I know I don't.

So back to our two TSA 'Terror suspects'. What of those not strong enough or powerful enough to fight for themselves? Those at the very beginning of their lives, and those at the end, are not strong enough, or powerful enough to fight for themselves. And, quite frankly, in the eyes of those 'deciding' and those who don't think we need a 'crutch' like religion and God, these two groups do not contribute enough to truly value them in society. So we have a nation where the unborn's right to life is dependent on someone else's choice, and to suggest that their rights are important is to be attacked outright. Imagine, we live in a world where you are considered intolerant by asserting someone's right to life. The old and the sick are being pushed to assert their 'right to die'. But isn't it naive to think that conceding some 'man' has the authority to bestow these rights upon us won't lead to someone having the authority someday, to make that choice for us as well?

We need to realize that the first amendment was not written to keep God out of government, but to keep the government out of God. As we push the faithful out of the public square, and move toward a totally secular society, we must consider what a danger it is to be judged only on what your usefulness is, how scary it will be when somebody else gets to decide what your life is worth, and where we are headed when the government becomes our god.

I know many people will not agree with what I'm saying here and others will think that I am railing against the current administration. I'm not afraid of the current administration. What is scaring me is the overwhelming attitude I see in comments everywhere. In news stories, on Facebook, on other blogs, people seem all too happy to take the decisions once left to God, toss Him aside (because that's how we've been conditioned when it comes to public policy) and allow the government, or the loudest interest group, to make that decision for all of us.

I recently got into a Facebook back-n-forth (I do not recommend these) with someone who said that religion was only responsible for violence, war and hatred and the faster we can get it out of our government, the better. I literally felt like we were talking about two different groups of people as I know a lot of religious people, none of whom are the monsters she described. While I agree that religion should not be a prerequisite for holding a government post and the last thing I would ever want is the government casting judgement on, or creating any religion, (these are the things that the first amendment guards against), it seems to me that people of faith in government, have the perspective of the Creator's unalienable rights and of being blessed with gifts that we do not 'deserve' or do not contribute enough to be 'worthy' of receiving. We are a nation with a lot of hope, with a lot of promise and with a lot of sin. We need to be grateful, we need to try to live up to His expectations and we need humility.

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of our nation, let's not forget the words of our Declaration of Independence, the document responsible for the beginning of a bold experiment in freedom. An experiment that God inspired and nurtured. An experiment that could end sadly if those of us with faith in the Creator allow our voices to be shut out of the discussion.

Happy 4th of July!

God bless,

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Theology of the Body or You teach Catholic teenagers WHAT?!?!

  A couple of weeks ago, in my post about pornography, I mentioned that my wife and I teach Theology of the Body for teens at our parish. It occurred to me at the time, that many readers may not know what TOB is. So I attempted (poorly I suspect, as the teaching is really expansive) to get the basic idea of the teachings in Theology of the Body to fit into this blog post. It was impossible. So I laid a foundation here, and I will be expanding on some of the concepts and how they apply to and affect church teaching as the weeks go on. So without further adieu, my post: Theology of the Body refers to the teachings in 129 talks that Blessed Pope John Paul II delivered during his Wednesday audiences between 1979 and 1984, at the beginning of his pontificate. The teaching centers on the body as the primary vehicle for making visible the invisible (the spiritual and the divine) and being the sign of these things in the visible world. The premise is that, in the way God designed our bodies, they point toward union with another. The meaning of life, is stamped into how are bodies are designed.
God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” Gen. 1:27
And in Genesis 2, the second account of creation, when Adam is seeking a suitable partner he goes through all the animals, and does not find one. Adam realizes that he is alone in the world, that somehow, he is different from these other creatures, and then God creates Eve, and we all know Adam's reaction to this:
the man said: "This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; This one shall be called 'woman,' for out of 'her man' this one has been taken." Gen. 2:23
And at that time, the bible goes on to say that:
The man and his wife were both naked, but they felt no shame.” Gen. 2:25
What this says to us is that, in the beginning, Adam and Eve were meant to see each other as an integrated body and spirit, to see the real value of the other person. They were not supposed to feel threatened by the selfish desire of the other, because they did not see each other that way. But in eating from the tree of knowledge, that desire for the good was twisted and they no longer saw each other as the beautiful integrated beings they were. Their perception of each other was split, and instead of seeing the beauty of the spirits that God had given to each of them, they only perceived the physical, seeing each other as a means to satiate their own desires. They then sewed fig leaves into clothing, because out of this revelation, came the suspicion that they needed protection from the selfish desires of the other.
I think it is always interesting to note at this point, that before 'the fall', the only tree that Adam and Eve were not to eat from was the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the tree that led to man thinking he is as wise as God. However, at the end of the story of the fall, God keeps them from eating of the tree of life. So, in the beginning, God's original intention was for us to live forever in a consciousness where we could truly see each others value as beings with a divine soul. But by introducing sin into the world and being tempted by evil, death came into the world, and we were cut off from this consciousness. Truly, isn't that still how sin works today? It is someone or something in this world telling us that God's word is not in our best interest, or that there are ulterior motives, or that 'everybody else is doing it', or that the expectation is not realistic. Whatever the justification, it gives us reason to think that we know better than God, that we have the true knowledge of good and evil. So we deliberately go against His word and cut ourselves off from Him. Sin has not changed much, has it? Or perhaps it is just perpetual.
Theology of the Body, then expands on this as it relates to the 'Nuptial' meaning of the body. What does this teaching in Genesis, tell us about the original intent for our sexuality and our spousal union? Well, to touch on this, we need to think about how seriously the bible takes marriage. The bible starts with a marriage (Adam and Eve), Jesus begins His public ministry at... a wedding. Jesus continually uses comparisons with himself as the 'bridegroom' and the church as the bride, and the bible ends with, the wedding feast of the lamb, where Christ and the church come together in union for all eternity. So it would seem that the spousal union is a pretty important thing in the word of God.
So starting with the teaching from Genesis that we were originally called to a union with each other, not as just physical bodies, but as integrated beings with a divine soul. Theology of the Body starts to give us an idea of God's intent for our sexuality.
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” Gen. 2:24
TOB then expands on this through teachings in the new testament. As I said, Jesus starts his public ministry by performing His first miracle at a wedding feast. Throughout His teachings, Jesus refers to himself as the bridegroom to his bride, the church. So Christ puts as a model for our spousal unions, his union with the church. St. Paul verifies this in his letter to the Ephesians, saying that marriage should reflect Christ's love for the church and the way he sacrificed himself, giving himself over for her. Concluding by saying:
So (also) husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.” Eph. 5:28-30
Theology of the Body thus teaches that our marriages should reflect Christ's sacrifice for the church. So if we believe that our sexuality (the design and desires of our bodies) is a gift from God to point us toward union with another, then we learn from the new testament, that the spousal relationship that leads to, is to mirror Christ's relationship with the church. At the very least, this should make clear to us that our sexuality is not to be twisted into ourselves and our selfish 'needs'. As I mentioned in a post a while ago, Christ never asked what was in it for him. “Hey Dad, what's in this for me? I mean, what do I get out of being crucified?” And this understanding gives us a clear definition of lust. Lust is simply using someone or something only for our own gratification.
So TOB tells us that our spousal relationship is to mirror Christ's sacrifice for the church and goes on to say what those qualities are: Free, Total, Faithful and Fruitful. Free in that Christ gave himself voluntarily for his church. Total in that Christ gave all of himself, up to death, for his church. Faithful in that Christ promised he would not leave the church. Fruitful in that Christ's death and resurrection brought life to all who will accept his mercy.
And, if you listen during a Catholic wedding ceremony, these are the exact vows we affirm...
1. “Have you come here freely and without reservation? (Free)
2. “Will you honor each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives?” (Total and Faithful)
3. “Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?” (Fruitful)
I will be expanding on a lot of themes in the coming weeks based on these concepts and how they explain some of the teachings of the Catholic church. I apologize in advance if I raise anyone's hackles by venturing to explain church teaching. I only hope that any discussion be conducted civilly, but I don't think I have to worry too much about that.
So this is a thumbnail sketch (believe it or not) of what Theology of the Body contains. And yes, my wife and I are crazy enough to teach this to teenage confirmation students for six weeks each fall and spring. The way we came to do so, was actually after we had taken a four week course on TOB ourselves and we looked back on our respective pasts and thought, 'Wow, there is really a need for kids to learn this before they make some of the mistakes we made.' So when our parish was seeking volunteers to learn and administer the 'TOB for Teens' curriculum, we had no least until the night and morning before we taught our first class. But the Deacon and his wife helped us out with that first session, and it went pretty well.
Now don't get me wrong, I am not naive enough to think that by teaching them TOB, these kids will all magically see their classmates as whole integrated persons, not use pornography, and grow to be perfect husbands and wives. (Just the tide of filth that kids are bombarded with every day today makes it clear that it's an uphill battle) But I do think that seeing a married couple that aren't TOO old, and have been frank and honest about some of the mistakes we have made, might make something click for one or two of those kids in the moment when those decisions or options are presented to them.
I know it's trite, and way overused, but if that happens once or twice, then it's really worth it.
Happy Solemnity of the Holy Trinity!
Happy Father's Day to all the dads!
God bless,

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Job Searching II: Jeremiah Strikes Back

"For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord,
Plans for your welfare, not for woe!
Plans to give you a future full of hope."
Jeremiah 29:11

I hate my job. I started this job two years, eight months and four days ago. There was a training period of eight weeks, and then I started actually doing the job. And I hated it from that moment.

Now I don't want this to sound like any kind of complaint against the company I work for. (Particularly to any of the readers who might know where I work) The truth is that the company I work for takes very good care of its employees. I get paid well compared to people doing my job at other companies. My benefits are great too. As a matter of fact, when my last daughter was born, I was given two weeks PAID Paternity leave. Can you imagine that in this economy? When employers know that they could really put the screws to employees, I got two weeks off, PAID, because my wife had a baby.

No, my company is a great company to work for. The problem is, this job just is not for me. I am definitely a round peg in the square cubicle of corporate America. So I have prayed for a long time, for the Lord to guide me to a new job. “What do You want me to do?”, I ask Him over and over,hoping that I will hear the call to some great purpose.

A while ago, however, I thought of a quote from Blessed Mother Teresa:

“We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”

You see, I have always felt (naively, I must admit) that God was going to reveal this amazing earth-shattering purpose for my life at some time, and that I would do something that would change millions of lives and make me a historical figure. Okay, so that's a bit of an exaggeration, but I did feel frustration that God would not reveal to me how I could help people and make a real difference. I mean, after all, I just wanted to do it for Him. Of course, with the side benefit of getting out of my 'round peg in a cubicle' job. But that quote very clearly points something out. We are not all called to be Blessed Pope John Paul II. Not everyone is called to be St. Thomas Aquinas, or Blessed Mother Teresa.

There are plenty of ways that we can encounter and serve Christ in our everyday lives. Think of the 'supporting cast' and 'extras' in the bible.

When the servers at the wedding feast in Cana (John 2:1-12) were putting on their aprons, they had no idea that they would deliver the jars of water that Jesus would turn into wine, the first miracle, starting His public ministry.

When they boy came to hear Jesus speak and brought a few loaves and fish, he had no idea that his lunch would end up feeding thousands. (John 6:1-15)

The Samaritan woman at the well didn't want to face the leering eyes and whisperings of her neighbors with regard to her personal life. “Oh, she's 'shacking up' with another one this week...” But she needed water, so she went when she knew it would be deserted. And there was a stranger who saw right through her and revealed himself as the Savior, the Living Water. She then told others and brought them to Jesus, all out of a chance meeting in her daily chores. (John 4:4-42)

Some of the disciples were even called to help Jesus while in the course of their daily work. Simon (Peter), Andrew, John and James were mending their fishing nets when they met Jesus and he called them to be 'fishers of men'. Matthew was a tax collector, sitting at his customs post.

Even at the end of Jesus' life there are similar examples. Simon the Cyrenian was visiting Jerusalem when he was pressed into service to help Jesus walk to His crucifixion. And when Joseph of Arimathea had a tomb dug out of the rock for his use (a great expense, as the gospels mention, he was a rich man) could he have possibly known that the place he would offer to lay Jesus' body, would be the site where the resurrection would take place?

All of these people were simply going about their daily lives and are now 'supporting actors' and 'extras' in the narrative of our salvation. Would there have been other servers if the staff at the Cana wedding 'called in sick'? If Simon the Cyrenian were not walking by, would someone else have been pressed into service to help our Lord walk to the sacrifice He made for us? Who would have led those Samaritans to Christ if not for the woman at the well?

As for me, would some other customer service representative take a moment after helping a customer in a bad position, or having health problems to say a silent prayer for them? Maybe they would, and maybe others do.

But the servers at Cana did go to work that day, Simon was in town when they needed someone to help Jesus carry his cross, the Samaritan woman, regardless of why, was the only one who came to the well at that moment. And for now, I am the one answering the phone call.

God doesn't wait for us to decide to take on the world and then reveal to us His grand scheme to use us as public figures to influence millions. He comes to us as we are and where we are and asks us to do small things, with great love for all the people we come in contact with.God's word doesn't tell us all where to go to do His work, God's word tells us how to do His work where we are.

So does this mean I don't try to look for another job? Well, the way I see it, if you're a round peg in a square cubicle, you should probably still keep your eyes open for a better fit. But in the mean time, do what you can and try not to beat yourself up because you aren't a square peg. I am writing this hoping that I can truly internalize that message.... I am writing this hoping that I can truly internalize that message.... I am writing this get the point. As I said, I realized this a while ago and I am still struggling with it.

But the most important thing I've learned while thinking about this over the past couple of weeks, is only going to take a few sentences. I was thinking that I wish God would pick a new job for me. I need it! I want it! And (perhaps most arrogantly) He could put me to such better use!

Then something happened at work. And I paused for a second, and thought........'You colossal goober-head!'

One of my colleagues and his wife are anxiously awaiting the birth of their first child. Hopefully, the baby should already be here by the time you're reading this. Pause, say a prayer for a healthy delivery for baby and mama........thanks.

So before he left work, I told him, “Look, I'm just going to warn you. In a few days, you'll be packing your new daughter into that brand new car seat and thinking, 'Isn't there some kind of force field I can put around my car for the ride home?' And as you drive away, you'll be thinking, 'Why on earth am I driving AWAY from the medical professionals?!?!?!'”

“But,” I assured him,” It will be okay.”

Then I was quiet for a moment, smiled, and said, (as I say to every expectant dad I talk to),”It's the best freakin' job in the world!”

You see, the job I don't like, is the job that MY decisions led to. The 'colossal goober-head' part came in when I thought of my wife and our two daughters.

It finally seeped through my thick skull. That is the job that God picked for me. Husband. Father. That was the earth-shattering purpose right under my nose as I was seeking it everywhere else. God has picked a job for me.

And yes, even when it's difficult, it's the best freakin' job in the world.

God bless,

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Every guy does it, right? or Hungry Like the Wolf

It was the morning of my wedding. I went out to breakfast with my parents and then back to the house to get ready to go to the hotel later that day. My mother had gone to get her hair or nails or maybe both done, and I confided to my father that there was something I meant to get done before that day.

He asked what it was and I told him. You see, I had a long history with something that I had a strange longing to leave behind once I was married. So on the day of my wedding, my father and I took a clandestine trip on a secret mission to the dump. I had a box that was full of pornographic magazines and videos and as I threw them over the rail and in among the rest of the garbage, I felt a relief and a lightening of my soul, and a slight tinge of sadness. In a disgusting way, an era had ended and even though I didn't realize it at the time, it had become an addiction. Today I look back at this as the first of many steps toward a much more beautiful future.

Fast forward to a few years later and my wife and I are preparing class plans for our first session teaching Theology of the Body for Teens at our parish. In one of the lessons it tells a story, the gist of which is that in order to kill wolves in the Arctic circle, the Eskimos would coat a knife blade in blood, let the blood freeze, and bury the knife, handle down, just outside of their encampment. The wolf would smell the blood and come to the knife. and then start licking the knife. Between the taste of the blood, and the numbing effect of the fact that it was frozen, the wolf didn't even realize it when he had gone through the frozen blood on the blade and cut his tongue. The blood that he so greedily licked up was then his own and his frozen tongue would not feel the repeated cutting until the wolf's hunger, eventually, would kill him. Now in researching this post, I found that some people doubt the effectiveness of this method for killing wolves. And I admit, the story could be true, or not. Either way, fact or folk tale, I instantly saw the connection between the wolf and the blood, and me and pornography.

The first time I saw a pornographic image stands out in my mind as being when I was about seven or eight years old. I remember a friend coming into his room with a Playboy Magazine from his father's room. (Well, of course his father had some of 'those' magazines......every guy does it, you know.) Not even realizing what we were really looking at, the thrill of seeing something we weren't supposed to and the excitement of (gasp) boobies! was probably the highpoint of our tiny lives. Soon after the time I saw that first Playboy, HBO came along and brought PG and R-rated movies into the home and it seemed like during that time, every movie had nudity. Even the most innocuous movies had to have a scene with a bare-breasted woman. I remember a movie with a group of suburban housewives who plan a heist from a shopping mall and to distract the crowd one of them, played by Jane Curtin, shows her breasts. I remember there being a big deal because Julie Andrews showed her breasts in a movie. Then there were the high school movies. Yes 'American Pie' kids, I hate to be the one, but it's time someone told you that the concept is really just a ripoff of the 'Porky's' movies that came out when I was a kid.

Then, at about twelve or thirteen, I saw a pornographic video for the first time. Here it was! The thing we wondered most about. What will it really be like? How long does it last? All of the questions that my group of friends and I had about sex, were going to be answered. Here were actual people 'doing it'! I am just now understanding the chemistry of why I can remember those images so clearly, and sadly, the damage that those images did to me over so many years. I will not go much deeper into the details of this, but it is around this age that for me (and most other guys, I imagine) our mental impurity, how shall I say this, began to manifest itself as a physical impurity as well. From here on, let it be understood that pornography and self-gratification are inescapably linked. This is where the wolves find the blood.

From then on, I could always find pornography somewhere. After all, I had two older brothers, my dad, my friends' dads, and, don't you know, every guy does it. There was Cinemax 'Friday, After Dark' and I was eventually even bold enough to record some of those movies. Ah, my own collection! And I struggled along as this sick, perverted scavenger through my teen years. There were video rentals in the eighties, and time when nobody else would be home. I returned one late once and my mother wondered why I had rented 'The Secret Garden', not realizing initially that it was not the child's story. When I was eighteen, I could just buy pornography, and all bets were off. I used to joke with my mother about how proud she must have been that all her sons had rental cards for the 'Moonlight Reader' adult store in our town. It was conveniently right next to the music store. That gave us all perfect cover! I still remember me and my friends laughing because when the store opened, there was an older gentleman sitting out in front for months in a lawn chair with a sign that said, “Real men don't use porn”. I laughed then. Now I would be sitting next to him.

At nineteen years old, the first bar I went to was a strip club. I faked my ID to take a friend there for his twenty-first birthday. A whole new level. Real women dancing nude in front of me. This was an expensive habit, thus relegated to special events. Twenty-first birthdays, bachelor parties, and the occasional evening out with 'the guys'.

Eventually, the internet came. The ease of the internet, combined with what I now know about the damage pornography can do, terrifies me for the prospects of the generations behind me. I moved out of my parent's house and met someone who was 'okay' with my pornography habit.

(Just an aside to women and young women of all ages....DO NOT ACCEPT THIS! Any man who is looking regularly at pornography, is training himself to look at you as no more than a means to satisfy himself. Anything loving that he does for you is conditional upon your satisfying him. Pornography does not help real relationships, it cripples them.)

I would make daily visits to the same website to see the new updates. It was at this point, a definitive addiction. I was the wolf starting to consume his own blood and not even realizing that there was anything wrong with it. After all, every guy does it, right? Surprisingly, that relationship did not work out and I moved back in with my parents.

Shortly after that, I was laid off from my job and rather than cancel my plans to go out to a strip club with my friend that evening, I used my severance check to up my spending limit. This was not a good sign. I had a couple of friends during this time that I would meet for dinner, and inexorably, end up at a strip club. Eventually, I realized that the spending was unsustainable, and stopped going so often. This was a blessing,because just around the corner was the day I would meet my wife.

When I met my wife, she had just returned to the Church, and I would wait for her to return from mass on Sundays before we could go to do anything. One weekend, when her family was out of town, I went to mass with her. “Once”, I said, “and after that, I can't promise anything.” Well, I went to mass that day, and it was like I had returned home. From then on, I went to mass with her and her family every Sunday. Getting the message every week made me re-examine a lot of things. One of those was pornography. Things progressed such that not only did I make my trip to the dump on my wedding day, but I asked my Best Man not to include a trip to the strip club in my bachelor party plans. Me, the guy who faced with unemployment, went to a strip club, did not want one involved in the night of my 'last hurrah'. I was not completely out of the woods yet, but I had journeyed quite a bit. Or at least, I had stopped greedily 'licking the knife'.

I mentioned earlier how those images stay with you. There is actually a chemical reaction that imprints those experiences more strongly in your memory. Even now I can't erase the images I exposed myself to for those years. Please take that as a warning. Like I tell all of the young men in the Theology of the Body classes, once you see those images, there is no way to 'UN-see' them. They are there embedded as a temptation forever. They are the blood-covered knife. A lure to appeal to your basest hungers which ultimately will lead to your destruction.

God bless,