The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Soup of Cans

Soup of Cans is much better than a can of soup. It’s an easy and nutritious way to cook, and it takes virtually no time or effort: You just open a bunch of cans, throw the contents into a pot and heat it all up!

I usually start with a can of diced tomatoes, as it makes a good “base” and often has garlic and other spices already included. Today I added a can of black beans, corn, shrimp and some leftover salmon in the fridge and a half-full can of French fried onions that I had been munching on previously. Nice!

This is one of those great late-nite meals. You think the cupboard is bare but there is really a bounty. The good news is that it feels like a meal. A plain can of black beans wouldn't do much for me, nor would any of these other items by themselves.

It is always good to have something to act as a "base" to bring the flavors together. Something with a strong flavor such as soup broth, meat or the aforementioned diced tomatoes work well in this regard.

There are, of course, a zillion and one ways to augment this recipe into something more, but the gist of it is this: Open cans, mix and heat. Stir in leftovers you find in the fridge. There are tremendous ways to be creative and end up with all sorts of new concoctions while spending relatively little time putting it all together.

You also have the option to not make it soupy--totally your call. It can be just a nice non-soupy concoction.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Pecking Order

I remember asking my dad if we could have backyard chickens back when I was growing up. I thought it would be fun to have chickens running around. His answer: "They'll shit everywhere!"

That was as far as that went.

Erin has been raising three chickens in her backyard for the past few months or so. Normally, I am not thrilled about having pets at this stage of life, as the workload and every day commitment can be a strain--weekend trips, late nights and coming and going at odd hours can be difficult if an animal is relying on you back home for food and companionship. However, these chickens are pretty easy to maintain.

They stand ready at the gate of their coop to be let out to roam every morning. Her backyard is multi-faceted and full of different terrains--tall weeds, bushes, tilled-up garden, flower beds--anything a chicken would want. They spend all day eating grass, bugs, grubs, compost or bird food, which makes me quite happy as the less they eat of the stock chicken feed the more healthy and nutritious their eggs will be. It also makes us more environmentally responsible as grain feed involves lots of transportation costs and has a carbon footprint.

At first, they didn't seem to be as messy as my dad predicted. However, as the weeks and months go on and the longer the chickens peck around the yard the more prophetic I realize my dad's words were. I have left a pair of shoes there strictly for backyard use, if you get my drift.

It's also going to be a problem during the planting season of the garden. No issue with them walking around already-grown plants, but when the land is bare and we plant seeds, I have a feeling there will be some turf wars between us and them. Methinks they will have to be limited to a certain part of the yard until the garden gets a chance to grow.

I noticed that one of the chickens is treated poorly. When food is delivered, the others try to squeeze her out and keep her away. I intervene and try to establish justice, but there's only so much a guy can do. I talked with Andy about this, and he related some gruesome stories about pecking order. Sometimes chickens will abuse a single chicken so bad that it gets utterly depressed, deprived and even dies from the treatment. Then they move on to the next, most vulnerable chicken. His words have haunted me for weeks.

It makes me have some serious doubts about animal (and human) nature. I tend to believe that our God-given nature is a key to our personal growth. I don't buy into that ugly strain of Christian theology that holds that our natures are utterly depraved and that we must forcibly resist our innate urges in order to be good. I hold a more holistic, modern approach that we can work with our natures in harmony and outgrow petty issues. This isn't to say that we are rosy-cheeked angels at all times, but it does mean that working with our nature is the path to growth, not working against.

I've seen pecking orders in many groups I've been in. I was in a rock band a number of years ago. There was always one member who was "the problem." For a while it was our singer, until he left and then the new singer became the new "problem." When he left, the three remaining members identified someone else from among ourselves, then when he left and there were two of us remaining, I was targeted and I knew it was time for me to be outta there. It wasn't that we were trying to bully, but there was something about focusing our angst on one member to weed out who we perceived as the weakest link. The complaints about that person were always valid, too, but there was something about the way in which it was done that concerns me. It is also amazing that the whole group was able to feel very unified while that "problem" member was present, but when he left the remaining members started being upset with someone who they had previously gotten along with!

Had we reached out and tried to work together, we might have been able to stick together as a band rather that always weeding out people as the way to solve a problem. Had we been more driven in our mission--rather than directing our energy toward picking each other apart--we could have moved forward together.

And maybe that's the key--we do have some issues in human nature that we have to work with. We can pick each other apart, for better and for worse. But if we remember to focus that same problem-solving energy on our mutual mission, maybe we can work through stuff. In this band, we were not even overtly mean to these people, but our level of angst with them probably created an environment that made them feel unwelcome and made it hard for us to work through problems.

Just because we should work with our human natures does not mean everything is perfect in our human natures. It is probably more about redirecting the same impulses for good rather than for not. The person is not the problem-some behaviors are. We should still focus on problem, but with the goal of working through them rather than culling the whole person from the herd.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Freedom of Jail

There's a line in a Civil Rights protest song that goes:

"I ain't scared of your jail, cause I want my freedom."

I heard it on the Pete Seeger album, We Shall Overcome: The Complete Carnegie Hall Concert. Great album, by the way.

It is such a simple line that maybe the deeper meaning can be lost if one doesn't pay attention. Isn't it counter-intuitive to want freedom so bad that you risk jail? Isn't jail, like, all about losing your freedom?

It gives insight to the spiritual depth of the Civil Rights movement. Life can be a ledger sheet--you weigh the pro's and con's and try to come up with the best possible solution considering all variables. You live with what you can and try to eek out for yourself the best possible circumstance given all variables.

Then others end up in some place that doesn't make sense to that account sheet. Folks love life so much they are willing to risk losing it. Folks want freedom so bad they are willing to lose it. Folks want the hungry fed so much they are willing to go on a fast.

If you try to hold that up against some standard of measured productivity objectives, it isn't going to be deemed sensible. Yet, the greatest saints and leaders for social change did these very insensible things.

Christianity often comes up with theologies that are all screwed up and they miss the point. There have been strains of Christianity over the centuries that have deplored the goodness of creation, imagining that the human body or sexuality were a bad thing. Others have wanted to follow Christ's passion and death so much that they were not just willing but actually eager to die. But true martyrs die because they love life, not because they are in a hurry to lose it. Some people misinterpret the suffering that many Christians have historically gone through--martyrdom, or the fasting and deprivation that many monastic communities have supported--to be a sign of hating this life or hating the human body or creation.

Martyrdom is the opposite of suicide. A suicidal person thinks they have nothing left to lose. A martyr probably feels that he has everything to lose and everything to gain. As G. K. Chesterton pointed out, Christianity has a bad history when it comes to a lack of compassion on people who commit suicide--yet it loves martyrs. While there should be compassion to suicidal people, particularly now the more we understand about mental illness, Chesterton is at least able to understand why there is such a cold shoulder given: Suicidal people hate life, martyrs love life.

The danger can come in when you follow any strain of theology too far and get too literal with it. It is easy to start off and say that "God is the souce of all goodness" and end up saying that logically speaking, if that is true then all creation must be a totally depraved place with no goodness in it. Well, God said that creation is good, too. Is it good because God flows in and through it, or does it have instrinsic goodness in it? It is hard to say and various theologies take that in different directions. Somehow a love of God is tied to a love of life. Somehow loving God and loving neighbor become the foundation of Christianity, and perhaps they are not two separate guidelines but actually one expression. Somehow charity and good deeds are tied to religion, somehow, deep down, we know this.

ADDED LATER: Another way to look at it is that the person in the song won't let the fear of jail imprison them. Sometimes the very threat of being in jail is enough to paralyze people and cause them to back down out of fear. The person in the song refuses to let their spirit be chained like that--imprison the body if you can, but the spirit will always be free! Hang him on the cross, if you can, but his spirit will rise!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Dec 2--Martyrs of El Salvador

We used to laugh at the Soviet Union.

What a tragic waste it was that they had to drain their economic and intellectual reserves just forcing all their citizens to stay in their country and maintain obsessive censorship of speech. Checkpoints, endless scrutiny of the citizenry, what a shame. Not only was it a colossal humanitarian disaster, but it was also unnecessary and, in fact, counter productive of the very goals they were trying to achieve.

The more you let something go, the more you have it.

In America, we knew better. The more freedom you have, the more benefits. Our citizens can pretty much go where they want and say what they want, and we are stronger for it--not weaker. We used to shake our heads at the former USSR. They just didn't get it. No surprise that the system ultimately crumbled

But don't think for one minute that that same knee-jerk reaction out of fear isn't always still present in America. It goes back to that fundamental struggle of love and openness versus fear and control. Many people feel that the only way to arrive at a goal is to forcibly control others--the only way to have national security is to silence all opposition, the only way to be prosperous is to oppress all the competition.

Business needs to be reminded of this every day. Business thought that the whole system would fall apart if we had child labor laws. Turns out business prospered.

Business thought that the world would come to an end if we had labor unions. Turns out now that we all miss the days when daddy went to work at a union factory shop and made enough money for mommy to stay home with the kids.

Business thought that capitalism itself would be ground to its knees if they had to be accountable to safety standards. Turns out they did just fine and we have a lot more healthier people to show for it.

Business thought that the 40-hour workweek would be the end of life itself. Turns out it was a new beginning.

Business always thinks in the short term--don't believe the myth that the free market knows all. The truth is that in the narrowest possible sense, an increase in these rules and regulations can and does spell a decrease in profits for an individual business--but when enacted over the whole system, it actually improves business overall. There are simply lots of healthier, happier, richer people to spend all their money back into the system. We thrive. Forget the humanitarian outcomes for a minute--it just makes good business sense to treat people right.

The problem is that business never really learned that lesson. Citizens demanding a marginal increase in their wages, the right to organize, the right to learn and study and say what they want to say can and does often spell malicious death in Latin America and other parts of the world--at the hands of soldiers trained, supported and supplied by the US government.

This may astonish most Americans, as these run contrary to some of the most fundamental values we have--we're all about spreading democracy, right? Well, all those "anti communist" actions we've been involved in over the past 50 years have often been a ruse for putting down labor organizers and others clamoring for a small raise in wages. Somehow, we still seem to think that our entire standard of life will fall apart if all these countries we exploit somehow got their feet on the ground. But wait--isn't this what we shrugged our heads at the USSR about?

Colonialism meet neo-colonialism. New boss = same as the old boss.

On Dec 2nd, 30 years ago today, we saw it in El Salvador. For some reason, soldiers trained, supplied and supported by the US military found that it was essential for our security that two nuns and their two female co-workers needed to be run off the road, raped and murdered on the spot.

The dirty little secret ain't so little. While we are lulled into thinking that we are the freedom fighters spreading democracy and toppling terrible regimes all around the world, our country in fact supports about 150 militaries, and the track record of the kinds of activities they get involved in would make the jaws of most Americans drop. Can someone explain how a massacre of an entire village of peasants in Guatemala is justified? But as long as Americans aren't coming home in body bags and there's no draft to awaken the Nintendo minds, it all goes on unnoticed. Clothes from sweat shops in southeast Asia are pretty cheap and no one asks any questions.

It is easy to turn a blind eye and say it's all about national security. To that, I refer you back to the top of this post. Don't we know that freedom and prosperity are good for all? A tight grip doesn't work. Isn't that a big part of what we're all about?

The only difference I see between the former USSR and the USA is that the former acted as if their national security depended on keeping their own people down, and the latter behaves as if national security depends on keeping everyone else down.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Way To Go, LCWR!

I couldn't believe the news today. This has got to be the biggest thing to hit the Catholic world in a long time:

This just in: Women religious not complying with Vatican study, as told in the National Catholic Reporter.

You may have heard that the Vatican has been conducting an investigation of women religious orders--to examine the "quality of life," which includes a "doctrinal assessment." This has caused quite a stir that this has been an unfair "inquisition" and little more than a thinly-veiled power grab. Tensions have been raised for the last several months.

I'll defer to Colleen Kochivar-Baker's fine summation on her excellent blog Enlightened Catholicism:

Three cheers for the LCWR and may this polite and non violent response reverberate through out the Vatican. This is real leadership and I am impressed beyond my wildest hopes. Thank you once again sisters for reminding us what it really means to respond with integrity and Christian charity in the face of inauthentic religious power and control.

I agree wholeheartedly and this is one of the proudest moments I have ever had with my Church.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Early Church

I have often heard about the "Early Church"--its values, its sense of community, its commitment to justice, its closeness to the roots of Christianity. People use it to back up their claims, "the Early Church did this, the Early Church did that."

Still, I was hesitant to take a course of the Church Fathers. So often, they are quoted in reference to some debate on the nature of the Trinity or some monotonous theological speculation. Many of their works haven't been translated for a century, so you end up reading them in wordy Victorian English with not quite enough paragraph separations to keep your eyes open.

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the Church Fathers in my recent class. In so many ways, they remind me of those in the modern peace & justice movements, those in base communities in Latin America or others who have the wisdom honed through facing persecution and struggle. They do have a lot of theological speculation. But they were also truly holy men.

None of these Fathers were pure academic theologians in the modern sense of the world. They were preachers, monks, bishops, many faced martyrdom or lived a severe life of sacrifice in order to follow their Christian call. They seem to embody what many Liberation Theologians today say: To really do theology requires the involvement of our whole being. Theology is always woefully inadequate when turned into a detached mental exercise, confined to the dry halls of academia.

These are some of my favorite quotes about charity and justice, not necessarily in chronological order. I've been quoting some of these on the Columbus Catholic Worker blog:

Tertullian, d. 222 A.D. :

I shall now speak about the characteristics of the Christian society. Each month, if he likes, each puts in a small donation, and only if he is able: for all is voluntary... These gifts are not spent on feasts, and drinking, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the needs of poor children and orphans, and of old persons confined to the house. We help those who have suffered shipwreck, people in exile, or those imprisoned because of their fidelity to God's Church...

"See," they say, "how they love one another."--from The Apology

St. Justin Martyr, d. 165 A.D., says almost the same thing:

The wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together... Those who are able and willing give what each thinks fit. What is collected is deposited with the president, who helps the orphans and widows. He also helps those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in need. Those who are in prison, and strangers staying among us: he takes care of all who are in need.--from The First Apology

St. Basil the Great, c. 329-379

O man, be like the earth. Bear fruit like her and do not fall short of what mere inanimate matter can achieve. The earth bears crops not for her own benefit but for yours. You, on the other hand, when you give to the poor, are bearing fruit which you will gather in for yourself, since the reward for good deeds goes to those who perform them. Give to a hungry man, and what you give becomes yours, and indeed it returns to you with interest. Just as the wheat that falls on the ground falls there to the great profit of the one who sowed it, so the bread given to a hungry man will bring you great profit in the world to come. Let your husbandry be aimed at sowing this heavenly seed: as scripture says, Sow integrity for yourselves.

You are going to leave your money behind you here whether you want to or not. As for whatever share of glory you have received through your good works, that you can take with you to the Lord. All the people will stand round you in the presence of him who judges you all: they will acclaim you as one who feeds the hungry and gives to the poor, they will name you as a merciful benefactor.

Do you not see how people throw away their wealth for a moment’s glory, for the shouts and praise of the crowds in the theatre, at sporting events, at fights with wild beasts in the arena? Where can you get that sort of glory for yourself if you hold on to your money or spend it meanly? God will give his approbation; the angels will praise you; all people who have existed since the beginning of the world will call you blessed. You will receive eternal glory and the crown of righteousness as a prize for rightly disposing of your wealth – wealth that in any case cannot last and must decay.

Why do you think nothing of the future hopes that are stored up by those who despise the cares of the present time? Come, spread your wealth around, be generous, give splendidly to those who are in need. Then it will be said of you as it is in the psalms: He gave alms and helped the poor: his righteousness will endure for ever.

How grateful you should be to your own benefactor; how cheerful you should be at the honour he has conferred on you, that you do not have to make a nuisance of yourself at other people’s doors, but other people come and bother you at your own! But at the moment you are grumpy and no-one can get to you. You avoid meeting people in case you might be obliged be part with even a little of what you have. You can say only one thing: “I have nothing to give you. I am only a poor man.” Indeed you are poor and utterly destitute. Poor in love, poor in humanity, poor in faith in God, and destitute of any hope of eternal happiness.

St. Gregory of Nyssa, c. 335-395 A.D.

Let us consider what peace is. Surely it is nothing else but a loving disposition towards one's neighbor. What is the opposite of love? It is hate and wrath, anger and envy, harboring resentment as well as hypocrisy and the calamity of war. Do you see how many different diseases this single word is an antidote? Peace is equally opposed to every one of the things mentioned, and wipes out these evils by its own presence.--from Sermon 7 on the Beatitudes

St. John Chrysostom, c. 347-407 A.D.

In order that you may wear one pearl drop, countless poor people are suffering from hunger. What excuse will you make for it? Do you wish to adorn your face? Do so not with pearls, but with modesty, and dignity... Take off all ornament and place it in the hands of Christ through the poor.--from Second Baptismal Instruction

If you wish to show kindness, you must not require an accounting of a person's life, but merely correct his poverty and fill his need... Need alone is the poor person's worthiness.. We do not provide for the manners but for the person. We show mercy on people not because of their virtue but because of their misfortunes.-- from the Second Sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man

Pope St. Leo the Great, c. 400-461 A.D.

What is so suitable to faith, so much in harmony with godliness as to assist the poverty of the needy, to undertake the care of the weak, to help the needs of others, and to remember one's own condition in the toils of others. Not only are spiritual riches and heavenly gifts received from God, but earthly and material possessions also proceed from His bounty. These things He has not so much put in our possession as committed to our stewardship. God's gifts we much use properly and wisely, lest the material for good work should become an occasion of sin. Wealth, after its kind and regarded as a means, is good and is of the greatest advantage to human society, when it is in the hands of the benevolent and open-handed, and when the luxurious man does not squander nor the miser hoard it. Whether ill-stored or unwisely spent it is equally lost.--from Sermon 10 on Almsgiving

St. Benedict, d. 543 A. D., father of Medieval monasticism

All guests are to be received as Christ himself. He himself said: "I was a stranger and you took Me in" [Matt 35:35]. To all, fitting honor shall be shown, but, most of all, to servants of the faith and to pilgrims. When a guest is announced, the abbot or brothers shall run to meet him, with every service of love. First they shall pray together and thus shall be joined together in peace... Christ, who is received in them, shall be adored.--from The Rule

Picture above is of Sts. Basil the Great, John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Hanging Laundry!

You've got to fight. For your right. To . . . hang your laundry?


Glad to hear some others are turning this into a movement.

I guess one person's "trailer trash" is another person's treasure. I'd rather see clothes hanging on the lines than sterile cookie-cutter rows of suburban homes any day. But if sterility is your thing . . .

It is not simply a matter of aesthetics, though. Clothes drying by electric or gas dryer is an absurdity of the wildest proportion. According to the above article, it accounts for 6% of residential energy use. And the biggest issue is that it is simply not necessary. How in the world are we going to manage the world's resources better and potentially make some sacrifices if we can't eliminate something that is energy intensive and absolutely unnecessary? In all honesty, drying by nature doesn't take much more effort than drying in a dryer.

I restrict the use of clothes dryers to when I am in an urgent hurry or if weather conditions are so unfavorable that I have no other choice. Every so often some items can be fluffed up a bit, but more often than not they dry just fine by Mother Nature.

If I can't hang them outside, I have a large wooden drying rack inside. You can put one right next to your washing machine if the physical labor of carrying wet laundry is unmanageable. The only caveat is that I don't like to spend much time in the room where they are drying. Fumes from the detergents bother me, and I do question the health effects.

On hot summer days, a load of laundry can be bone dry in less than an hour hanging outside, and not much longer drying inside. Even on the murkiest, dampest days, it rarely takes longer than a day or two to dry anything. Putting an electric fan directed toward them can speed up the process with less energy inputs, and that is a better alternative than the dryer.

I don't understand at all why people have reservations about laundry hanging outside. It is simply too practical to avoid, in my opinion. Just dry your underwear inside, like the woman in the article does. What other problems can this possibly cause?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fats and Oils

What's the most nutritious part of a chicken?

That's sort of a trick question.

The answer: All the gelatinous juices left in the bottom of the pan after you cook the chicken.

Why is this so nutritious? It includes all the extracts from the bones, cartilage, and organs that you either can't (or won't) eat. It is full of minerals and important fats and oils. It is also the exact nutrition that most of us eating westernized diets lack.

I share the concerns of folks at the Weston Price foundation when it comes to fats and oils. It scares me when folks think that a low-fat diet is somehow ideal. Skim milk, zero calorie this or that, meats with all the fat trimmed off, etc.

Let's get one thing straight: Fats and oils are nutrients. Nutrients! You need them. You won't be doing your body good to dismiss them en masse as empty calories.

There is an important distinction to be had between good and bad fats, though. This is where it gets tricky.

Our ancestors sought out fats and oils in their diet. They hungered for them. Killing a fatted animals in the fall could make the difference between surviving a winter or not. Granted, they also spent a lot of time outdoors in the cold and exercised a lot. Still, we can assume that our bodies are hardwired and function best on a high-fat diet, if we look to evolution as a guide.

The fats and oils from animals raised in captivity on grain-based diets with little exercise are actually not as good for you as their natural counterparts. All the good fats, such as the popular Omega-3's, are found in high concentrations on free range animals who are fed a diet that is consistent with what the animals would eat naturally.

The worst are the artificially produced fats, such as trans fats, hydrogenated oils.

Health and weight loss cannot be determined solely by a linear accounting for calories. The kinds of foods you eat affect your metabolism and can change the way your body manages the calories you take in.

It is crucial to secure good fats and oils in your diet--olive oil, cod liver oil, and fats with good concentrations of omega-3's, such as any fat from grass fed beef or naturally raised animals. Avoid factory-farmed animals and the fat that comes with them.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Creeds and Deeds

Mystical Seeker mentioned a church that professes to be about "deeds rather than creeds."

It is easy to understand the appeal of such a statement--wanting a church that is more about actions than talking, more about justice than empty dogma.

However, creeds are inevitable. At some point, any group of people has to be about something. That means, by default, they are not about something else. Every group has some kind of organizing principle, something they rally around. Even churches out there that profess to be "non-creedal" often have a mission statement, criteria for membership and a list of values.

Ironically, "deeds rather than creeds" is, in fact, a creed.

Creeds are unpopular because a lot of folks grew up in churches where dogma was rammed down their throats by folks who hardly even understood what they were preaching. Something like the Nicene Creed becomes just an empty statement about abstract theology that hardly makes sense or has any relevance to life. The Creed just looks like an assertion of power and conformity, rather than an educational opportunity and a chance for a group to pass down traditions. It becomes like the Pledge of Allegiance--just a patriotism test.

The amazing thing is that every social justice statement of the Christian churches comes directly out of the creedal statements. The "deeds" they are talking about are derived from the "creeds." It just takes a lot of theology to see how that all works.

Charity and social justice are fundamental to Christian theology. However, they are rooted in something much deeper--our very concept of God: God as Trinity. God as something other than us. God Incarnate into human existence. Creation as a gift that didn't have to be. All these most basic, fundamental notions--axioms--of orthodox Christian theology all feed directly--and explain--the impulse to "do good."

How can the concept of Trinity compel us to act toward social justice, for example?

Tradition has handed down the belief that God is one. Tradition has also handed down the belief that God is three--Father, Son and Spirit. How can both be true? Christians wrestled with this and came up with an understanding that our God is Trinity--one and three at the same time.

St. Gregory of Nyssa does a good job of making the connections in his Sermon on the Beatitudes 7. God as Trinity is the living embodiment of unity in diversity, because the Trinity is truly one, but also distinct in three-ness, too. Christ says, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God" (New American Bible Matthew 5:9). God is a force of peace, maintaining distinctions but in perfect unity. When peacemakers are able to bring this about, they are, in a sense, doing something very fundamentally God-like--easing divisions without tampering with the dignity of individuals. They earn the right to be called children of God because they are manifesting what God is.

The very reason we think that being a peacemaker is a good thing is because it jives with how we understand how God and the world relate. The fact that everyone calls God "Our Father" is an outrageously radical statement. If God is the Father to all, then that must mean that all are sisters and brothers, and if we are all family it helps us understand our deep kinship and responsibilities to each other.

I recently took a class on Catholic Social Teaching. During the whole semester, I struggled with the reading choices of the professor. You would think that we'd be reading and endless stack of papal encyclicals on justice and getting into the nitty gritty of how to approach issues as a moral dilemma. And we did some of that. But we also spent an outrageous amount of time reading some rather abstract theology that was all about axioms of Christianity.

One book was The God of Faith and Reason by Robert Sokolowski. It was all about "the Christian distinction"--the idea that God is other than us and that Creation is a gift that never had to be. These are some of the most basic truths on top of which the entire Abrahamic tradition is based. The idea that God did not have to create the world means that God did it as a gift. As a result, the only proper response from us is gratitude. This sense of gratitude is at the foundation of our respect for the world and for the fruits of Creation. After the semester was over, I finally understood why this book was chosen and why it was more important to understand this concept than to have a cursory understanding of the minutiae of the papal encyclicals.

I'm suspicious of a church that is about "deeds rather than creeds." I would want to know which deeds they value and why. If they don't have an answer to that, then that leaves a couple of options: Either they have a very innocent instinct to do service that they can't explain, or else they are leaving the heavy lifting to other churches who have worked out the theology. If the latter is true, this church exists in orbit around the orthodox Christian churches and cannot exist with them.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Having an Ulcer and the Need to Be Politically Incorrect

I hardly ate or slept at all last week. I spent most of the time dealing with abdominal pains. How does one exactly deal with abdominal pains on those sleepless nights? Usually by clawing and clutching the floor and groaning and twisting for hours to find a momentary position of comfort.

My trip to the emergency room yielded a verdict of "unexplainable abdominal pain/inflammation, perhaps caused by stress or a virus." So they prescribed me an anti-inflammatory drug.

Coincidentally, that anti-inflammatory drug should not be taken if one has an ulcer, according to the warning label. Yet, that's what I seem to have.

When I went in for a follow-up to see my family doctor, with even greater stomach pains than before, she joked that the ER doctors must have wanted to make sure I had an ulcer based on their prescription choice. Talk about gut busting humor.

The mind immediately thinks of "stress" whenever someone mentions an ulcer, and I don't exactly have to go way out on a limb to trust that intuition. My stress management is in need of an overhaul. I knew that I have been approaching burn-out with the activity at the Catholic Worker, but I didn't realize until this happened how deeply I have been holding onto stress.

Lately, I have been taking the role of the stress absorber. Being in a position to so often be the public voice of the Catholic Worker, I work hard on building bridges, nurturing relationships and diffusing problems. I am constantly aware that I am in public, that words can be overheard and that blogs and emails can find themselves in the hands of anybody. As a result, I am constantly vigilant, focused and fair. I'm always "on." This is by far more stressful than the workload itself.

There are, of course, numerous flare ups and outbursts that any community would experience, both coming toward us and within. I make it a point not to pass that on like a good peacekeeper. People come to me to mediate. All day long it's a balancing act to weather these forces while still trying to push a community forward with vision.

Most of you who know me well know that this doesn't always come naturally for me. I tend to be outspoken and opinionated. I detest being political or overly diplomatic. There are, however, some things you can cut loose about when you are with your close circle of long-time friends and those are often not the kinds of things appropriate for a general audience. Having an inquisitive mind, I have many half-baked ideas, and I'd love to have a forum where I can just let them loose and work them out without a public lashing if I say something stupid. Lately, I don't have many places to go where I can just vent and be politically incorrect or even just explore ideas openly without fear of being judged just for taking the chance to try an idea on for size or even to vent.

The problem is that Newton's Laws of Physics apply here--energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed from one form to another. Only God can create energy, the rest of us just pass it around. If I take in stress and don't expel it, it won't magically disappear. It must be transferred somewhere. If I have no outlet, then it will simply reverberate throughout my body and eventually end up as an injury wherever my body is weakest.

Usually I consider myself to be rather self-aware, but when something like this hits so suddenly it becomes apparent that I can hide an awful lot from myself. As I ponder my future in the Columbus Catholic Worker, I really need to figure out a way to keep myself healthy or else risk my long-term viability in this role. Maybe I'm not an effective peacemaker if I am soothing the problems of others only to bring them on for myself. I probably have a long way to go to live into this better.

I'm looking at carving out strict days off. I am already screening calls and checking email less regularly, but there's more to it than that. There's a need to just get together with some buddies and talk about all the assholes I have to deal with, and not be polite or cautious or diplomatic or list the endless stream of disclaimers ad nauseum. I need to find time to be with people who are not going to misunderstand me or be quick to rush to conclusions against me, but someone you can just shoot the shit with, make off color jokes and move on. I used to do very good with this, but my balance has gotten thoroughly out of whack, lately. Time to get back in whack.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Complex Stress

I tend to wear a lot of stress. At the end of the day, my body is tired and my legs can't go no more. I don't sit down much and I'm constantly pacing around. It's not all driven by stress--I do like to be active. But whether it is the cause or the end result, stress is definitely in the mix.

My super-rich tastes in foods are probably my attempt to cram essential nutrition into my worn out body. I'm rarely content with a dish of cold spaghetti or simple foods--no, I eat like a pregnant woman in all the variety and combinations you can imagine. Pickles and shrimp on a whole-wheat pita with hot sauce and grilled veggies? Yum!

So I figured I'd try this handy dandy supplement: Vitamin B Stress Complex.

Sounds like a winner, right? I'm stressed and probably depleting my body, so this vitamin would compensate for that. Sounds reasonable.

The vitamin is well-named--it really does address stress. But what I found is that instead of giving my body the nutrients that I need to be less stressed, all it actually does is give me the nutrients I need to be even more stressed.

Yes, it's a stress enabler.

Normally, it is weariness alone that forces me to slow down. I'm finding out that that is probably a healthy response. With this vitamin, there is nothing stopping me from being as charged and stressed as my mind can imagine and my legs ache even more at the end of an even busier day.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Choice Crazy

I had a rough day. Been through the wringer. I just wanted to stare out into space. Walked into a Frisch's Big Boy restaurant, thought a big pile of protein and starches might be good for the soul.

I'd love to just say to the hostess, "fix me sumthin'" and retire to a table to return to staring off into space.

Oh, no. They want to do me a big flippin' favor by telling me all these choices I have. There are first 2,000 items on the menu, but not that many pictures. Each one is a paragraph. I can get a sandwich, but sides are extra. 2 sides cost a certain amount. The soup & salad bar costs another amount. And a combo deal of one side and the S & S bar is still another price. What do I want to drink. Just some water... I step up to go to the soup bar, and she still has more questions: Do you want ice? Do you want a lemon?

Look, just fix me sumthin'.

DISCLAIMER: I don't want to turn this into another abortion thread, although by intentionally poking at our usage of the word "choice" I'd certain deserve that. There may be a real relationship here to abortion, but I'd rather not go there . . .

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Womens Ordination--in a Nutshell

In honor of Fr. Roy Bourgeois' upcoming talk here in Columbus on the topic of the ordination of women to the priesthood of the Catholic Church, I am reminded of a statement I heard in a skit in a faraway place, a long, long time ago:

Tis more important to pee like Jesus,
than it is to be like Jesus

And after all the theological mumbo jumbo has been written, discussed, scoffed at, denounced and propped up, after all the cards have been played and the men with pointy hats have stomped their feet, it really and truly just boils down to the above statement.

I have written about this topic before and I can bat down the arguments as fast as they can throw them up, and while I tend to avoid bumper-stick slogans I will have to concede that on this point the slogan really sums it up for me.

Let me go as far as to say that I think the Catholic Church will go a long ways to ending abortion when women have the equality in society they were intended for by their Creator. The desire for abortion rights, from my perspective, often comes out of a deep pain that women have for not feeling like they are in control over their own lives. In my view, abortion rights are an improper response to this pain. But I think that when women have the standing in society they were meant for, the discussion about abortion will enter a much better phase than it is right now--it won't be driven as much by the pain of inequality.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Inconsistent Pro-Life People

People betray themselves by their inconsistencies. Not that any of us is perfectly consistent, but inconsistency certainly raises some eyebrows and starts people asking questions.

Take the recent controversy over Obama speaking at Notre Dame. Some were infuriated that a pro-choice president like Obama was given the attention and honors he got, given that the Catholic Church is decidedly pro-life.

On the one hand, this could deserve some congratulations. When many churches are accused of trying to be "all things to all people," here you have one that is willing to take a stand. Perhaps this is something to be proud of.

The anti-abortion stance of the Catholic Church is rooted in a respect for life--all life, all the time, everywhere. There are many Catholics who take a hard line stance on abortion, allowing no if's, and's or but's about it. To them, abortion is wrong and that's all there is to it. Okay, that's a respectable stance. Then ask them about war... euthanasia... the death penalty... these are often considered "negotiable."

Many of these folks who would not support abortion under any circumstances seem to have little regard for the dropping of thousands of megatons of explosives on foreign nations--bombs which kill, most certainly, a number of unborn babies. You may remember that George W Bush--the unrepentant architect of those very actions--also spoke at Notre Dame without a peep from the pro-life contingency.

The inconsistency of the response of folks at Notre Dame reflects a trend that you can see elsewhere among some American Catholics--not all, but some.

It seems that the people I am describing are not pro-life. They seem to be anti-abortion, they have a particular call and desire to stop abortions for whatever reason. Maybe they just like unborn babies and really want to crusade for them. Fine with me. But when it comes to truly understanding what the Church is calling us to understand when it comes to respect for all life, they don't get it.

To narrow the pro-life movement to just abortion is to miss the whole point--all life, all the time, everywhere. The crippled and able. The living and dying. The young and old, born and unborn, healthy and sick, smart and dumb, friend and enemy, neighbor and foreigner, guilty and not guilty, you name it. Life is a gift from God and must be respected through all its phases and manifestations--none is greater or more deserving of their life than another.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Early Christian Martyrs

Being a Christian was a crime in the Roman Empire in the first 300 years of Christianity. However, as Justin Martyr, Tertullian and others have pointed out, there was a vast inconsistency in the way the Romans treated the Christian "criminals" compared to how they treated the murderers and thieves.

When a thief was suspected of a crime, they would arrest him and sometimes torture him to get the truth out of him. It was actually the opposite with Christians: A Christian would already self-identify as Christian and then the Roman authorities would use torture, prison or gladiator spectacles to get the Christian to deny it.

This would be a good time to pause and ask--What benefit did it serve the Romans to do this?

It is not like the Romans were trying to do them a favor by going through all this torture to make the Christians honor the pagan gods to spare them from death. That would have been just too generous. Why did the Romans go through all the trouble to torture admitted believers into denying what they had already publicly and proudly affirmed?

It was about domination. It was a fight for the soul of the Empire. It had nothing to do with justice. If simply being Christian was a crime, then certainly the verdict should be easy if the suspect was fully admitting it. If an admitted believer denied their Christianity in the face of torture, it was not like anyone was going to believe that "confession." In fact, there is evidence that the Romans (as well as the Christians) shunned the people who caved in.

The goal was to see if Roman might was able to break the spirit of a believer. They could return that person tattered and broken back to society, somehow "proving" that the Roman Empire had the ability to conquer dissidents. In this macho, honor & shame society, this was a big deal. Was strength and force enough? The Christians answered: No!

The Romans even stopped torturing women on some occasions, because when the women endured the torture and held their heads up high and continued to affirm their Christianity even to the point of death under the most terrible conditions, it was a absolute shame on the Romans. Consider the language: They felt "conquered" by these women! Now, can can someone who tortures someone to death be the one who is conquered? There are certainly deeper theological reasons as we have seen in the passion and death of Jesus himself. Jesus promised us that might does not make right, and that military and political force do not have the last word.

Roman power was not able to win. They could not intimidate, force or manipulate people to follow their will or make happen what they wanted to make happen.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Fr. Scott gave some reflections on the "right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" in his homily today. This was in recognition of the influence of St. Robert Bellarmine in the formation of the US Declaration of Independence.

It is a very interesting list of rights. The order. The level of importance of each. Something to thing about.

It is curious to ponder what kind of list most folks would come up with if you ask what are the fundamental responsibilities of each person.

Or what list folks would come up with if it were a collective list rather than individual--we all advocate strongly for our own right to life, of course, but what about the right to life for the guy next door?

I'll go out on a limb here and suggest that most folks--even many well intentioned folks--would put the pursuit of their own happiness over and above someone else's right to life.

Now, folks won't necessarily come out and say that. This is something that comes from simply observing actions. Folks seem to put their time, talent and energy on their own happiness first. People literally exhaust their energy, their creativity and their bank accounts rehabbing their house, planning a vacation or doting over their friends and relatives. With some left over time and energy, some well-intentioned folks devote some resources to protecting the rights of others.

How different life would be if we all believed strongly in the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--in that order--and included all humanity and not just ourselves! Just imagine how differently we would have to live in order to put that into practice and act as if we really believed it!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Discerning a Call to Religious Life?

Why go to when you can go to Yes, that's right--a matchmaking service for Catholic religious orders.

It is not much different than any other personals site: You fill out a profile, check off some interests, roll the dice. They give you a list of religious communities that fit your criteria. Whether you want to live a prayerful life in a monastery baking bread all day, be a globe-trotting missionary priest, or work in a parish right here in America, they can find a community that suits you.

They also offer to send your profile information to the vocations contacts of those communities, if you so wish.

According to the website, there has been an increase in the inquiries about religious vocations over the past year. One main reason for that is the internet--folks who are bored at work can simply start browsing (like me). You can stick your toe in the water ever so casually. In the recent days of old, you'd have to talk one-on-one with a priest or nun or write a letter to a community to get the ball rolling. That's altogether too serious. Too intimidating.

I think they can stand to fine-tune this site a bit--the criteria focuses on logistics such as the kind of ministries that appeal to you and the geographic location. There might be some value in selecting for the charism or political stance of the group a bit more. I tried it out and found the US Army Chaplains in my list, with the motto: FOR GOD AND COUNTRY. Um . . . I'll pass. However, I can understand that maybe it is better to leave that level of discernment to the individual than to a computer.

Or maybe they are wise to stick to mechanics to avoid stepping on any landmines. Image the kind of shit they'd stir up to label some of these orders as, "Wacko Conservative Throwback to the 1300s" or "Government Overthrowing Liberation Theologians." We all know which is which, anyway.

To be honest, I've been drawn to the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, as I have been quite impressed with the priests I have known at my parish. The Latin American missionary priests have always been my heros. This was true back in high school and it is true now. I also admire the small-town, farming community priests. The Precious Blood blend both! Yet they didn't appear that high on my search list. I got Maryknoll, the Camboni Missionaries, some assorted Franciscan orders and a bunch of others I didn't really know. Interesting that Holy Cross scored high--I went to a Holy Cross high school and always felt drawn to them, even though education at the high school level has never appealed to me (they do other things, though).

I admit to being turned off by the larger orders that seem more institutional, like the Jesuits and Maryknoll, despite the fact that both of those orders are some of the best witnesses to justice in our Church and I respect them both immensely.

I ended up with a list of 79 potential community matches, and that was after narrowing my search criteria substantially. That is a bit much to wade through. I'd rather have 3 choices to pick from and make the best of it.

The Vocation Netowrk also conducted a very informative Vocation Trends Survey, with all sorts of interesting nuggets of information. The main concern for women is the potential time away from friends and family. For men, it is celibacy and issues of personal freedom. Folks over age 50 seem more drawn to a monastic lifestyle, while younger people would rather be out in the world. In the 2009 survey, more men than women said that wearing traditional religious clothing is important, which bucks a trend which generally has it it with women preferring that.

So, you are asking, am I considering a religious vocation? While I won't say 100% no, I can't imagine not raising a family or marrying. If I had two lives to lead, sure, I'd lead one of them as a priest or brother. I am also finding out that my lifestyle as a Catholic Worker is so darn close to the life of a member of a formal religious community that I'm not sure what the benefit would be of changing--I guess I wouldn't have to hold an outside job or worry about health insurance. And with a priest there is also the issue of presiding over (some of) the sacraments. But overall, all my searching has just led me to believe that my calling is right in front of me.

Anyway, I like the site. It doesn't help you figure it all out or show you a big billboard lighting the way to your destiny, but it provides a sounding board, links you easily to information, and gives you an easy way to start some preliminary searching without doing something as obscene as actually contacting a community to make a formal inquiry.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Building Block Meals

I love being creative in the kitchen and coming up with new concoctions. I am also a very simple cook. I like having basic building blocks to work with.

Sometimes I just like to cook up a large batch of something and just eat off of it all week, mixing and matching whatever I have in the fridge. I am still ever-so-impressed with my purchase 25 lbs of whole-grain rice for just under $18. It is not that hard to cook up a batch and just keep it at the ready. It is cheap and I have whole-grains in my diet on a regular basis--that's called being strategic with time, nutrition and finances.

Rice by itself doesn't do the trick, though, so it goes into things and things go into it--I may spoon it into soup, lob it onto a burrito, fry it up with an egg and some veggies, or just mix things into it. One of the best meals is to take this rice, some cooked ground beef and add hot sauce. Even better if I can saute in some peppers and onions, too.

The other day I added the contents of a can of salmon (wild caught) to the rice, and then chopped up a garden-fresh red tomato.

I live and often eat with vegetarians, so keeping dishes separate can be beneficial for them, as well.

Today's meal? Rice with a pile of bacon, some skin-on baked potato pieces and some cherry tomatoes. All mixed together in bacon juices. It takes like something I spent hours cooking, when in reality I just took a bunch of leftover and out laziness just brought them all to work together in one bowl.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Vow of Nonviolence

I went to the Pax Christi Conference and took the Vow of Nonviolence. I have to admit that I was sort of half-hearted about it. No, I don't have any objections to the content--I truly believe in the nonviolence of Jesus. But I'm not really a "vows" type of guy (except for the big ones like marriage) and especially not in this context. You get a large crowd of people are they are all asked to take an oath, it just seems fishy to me, no matter how good the intention. I don't like the Pledge of Allegiance, either. I hadn't been discerning much about non-violence to the point where I could have felt ready to take a vow. I wasn't against it, but I just wasn't "there" yet. So I mumbled through it and just wasn't sure where I sat with it.

But I feel like I'm taking the vow every day now, little by little. I was very moved by Fr. John Dear's workshop session at the conference. He talked about our absolute addiction to violence. We always think that one more war, one more fight, one more argument, one more exchange of harsh words is going to solve our problems, but we are left wanting. You see, violence is not solely the realm of physical fighting. There is violence all over in our relationships, the way we talk, the way we act, the purchases we make, our lifestyle, you name it. It is both out in the open and hidden.

When we talk about people as if they were objects, we commit violence. When we squander the earth's resources, we commit violence. When we tear down instead of build up others, we commit violence.

I now feel it is the right thing to say, so while I may have said it half-heartedly at the conference, I am saying it right now for real. There is a part or two that I still stumble over and I'm not quite sure how I feel about it, but I'm living into it more each day. It's quite beautiful:

A Journey Toward Disarming the Heart


RECOGNIZING THE VIOLENCE IN MY OWN HEART, yet trusting in the goodness and mercy of God, I vow for one year to practice the nonviolence of Jesus who taught us in the Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons and daughters of God...You have learned how it was said, "You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy"; but I say to you, "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. In this way, you will be daughters and sons of your Creator in heaven."

Before God the Creator and the Sanctifying Spirit, I vow to carry out in my life the love and example of Jesus

by striving for peace within myself and seeking to be a peacemaker in my daily life;

by accepting suffering rather than inflicting it;

by refusing to retaliate in the face of provocation and violence;

by persevering in nonviolence of tongue and heart;

by living conscientiously and simply so that I do not deprive others of the means to live;

by actively resisting evil and working nonviolently to abolish war and the causes of war from my own heart and from the face of the earth.

God, I trust in Your sustaining love and believe that just as You gave me the grace and desire to offer this, so You will also bestow abundant grace to fulfill it.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Eucharistic Transformation

In my reading of Scripture, I've always thought that it was clear that the body of Jesus becomes bread.

What I've always been puzzled about is how--through 2,000 years of Church Tradition--we have come to think that it is the bread that becomes his body?

Isn't that backwards?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Getting Things Done

Getting cancer really changes things. Even if it's cancer-for-dummies like the form of thyroid cancer I have/had.

Things in your body change due to the treatments. It cracks me up that I can barely enjoy a bag of Doritos anymore. My mouth is just too dry from all of the radiation. I normally don't notice the dryness much, but with certain foods it is really apparent. Having to wash down some chips with water just to avoid choking isn't the same. It is actually a blessing in disguise: My multiple bag a week habit was not healthy and I wouldn't be surprised if that were a culprit in the cancer in the first place.

I also have this insane urge to get things done. It is like a surge in my body. Procrastination is a big non-issue. I have this incredible energy to get things done, like the clock's ticking. I have a profound understanding of how short life is, and I want to get some things done before I go. Like the old timers used to tell me: There'll be plenty of time to rest when I'm in the ground.

Is that healthy? Maybe not, but who's going to actually tell someone who has had cancer that to their face?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Eat It, Quick!

Once fruits and vegetables are picked off the vine, the clock starts ticking on their nutritional value. Within minutes, in some cases, the favinoids and other micro nutrients start breaking down.

Most of us in North America will probably never know the true taste of items such as coffee, bananas or pineapple. I would imagine at least several days go by after picking before any of those items appear on our store shelves. If they do arrive sooner, it is due to being flown in which is a massive problem for our carbon footprint!

You can eat fresh fruits and vegetables all year long, but if you aren't getting items that have been recently picked, you may be missing out on some important nutrition (not to mention flavor). Ironically, some frozen and canned items are preserved quicker than the fresh items in your store and may carry these nutrients better.

I encourage everyone out there to rotate some ultra-fresh items in your diet. A few times a year, go berry picking and eat the berries as you pick. Go to your garden and eat some things right off the plant--tomatoes, snap peas, lettuce and green beans are good candidates for that. At the very least, eat them within a few minutes of picking.

Our traditional ancestors ate a good portion of their diet right off the vine, and our bodies evolved to eat that way. While modern preservation and distribution methods have made life easier, they have come at a cost to quality. We could be missing out on some essential nutrition. Modern science does not yet have a good understanding of how this works, but in light of all this, eating fresh, whole foods is recommended.

Most traditional cultures also have a habit of going on a "fresh foods pilgrimage" several times a year. Some go wild berry picking, mushrooming or follow whatever the local delicacy is. They are in search of these amazing items picked ripe off the vine.

I write this after eating a fresh yellow squash that I just picked this morning. I cooked it up with some parsley that was just plucked out of the front yard. My body is soakin' it up! I also picked some radishes this morning. I almost never choose them at the salad bar, but I ate a few slices as I was cutting them up and they were absolutely delicious. If there is any vegetable that you don't like, try eating it fresh off the vine and you may reconsider your opinion. I bought some stalks of fresh broccoli last year, and couldn't stop eating them. Normally, I eat a few clumps from a veggie tray and need gobs of dressing to make it appealing. With the fresh stuff, I was wolfing it down and just couldn't stop.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


I just got finished watching the film Romero last night. I haven't seen it in years, and it hit me a lot harder this time than it ever did before.

I find myself echoing the words of many liberation theologians--we have a faith that is rooted in the cross. How hard can it be to understand this faith when one of the central narratives is about a man who is marginalized, tortured and executed. Perhaps those who hunger and thirst for justice and liberation are the ones who "get it" better than the rest, regardless of whether they have the doctrinal statements at their disposal or not. It may be impossible to ever understand our faith without an experience of the cross, and that means that most of us in middle class lifestyles may only be dipping our toes in the water, at best (many of us do carry crosses, don't get me wrong, but there's a big difference between a typical suburban American life and what you see in Romero).

A lot of people are bored with typical American religious church services. If you want something that really grabs you by the collar and shakes you, watch Romero, where saying Mass was a matter of life or death and every word rings truer than you have ever heard it on Sunday morning. This is what the faith is about to me. Sunday Mass at the suburbs we're yawning . . . or maybe we're just practicing. It all unfolds when you are at those crisis points in life.

Maybe there's no other way to understand our faith than to walk in the footsteps of the man who was marginalized, tortured and executed. Perhaps it is an experience of the cross, a thirst for liberation, where a truer understanding is. Maybe true religious insight is simply not available without that.

Monday, June 15, 2009


From the inside of a downtown building, I can hear the hum and murmur of construction equipment hard at work. When they back up, you can hear the "beep beep beep"... and in the middle of all the sound and traffic and hazy afternoon it always sounds like the organ intro to Black Magic Woman.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Little Country Church

Spare me your motivational talks. Spare me your antibacterial soap. Spare me your tubs of ready-made supermarket macaroni salad, and just give me back my little country church, where we were so hokey that I really thought I was the cat's meow when cruising down the street on a tractor as a 10-year old, as old men drove by and saluted. Me and my sister looked forward all year to playing on the metal frames that my family set up for the game booths for the annual festival. We swung on them like a jungle gym for as long as we were allowed. And we were innocent and as real as the ground under your feet.

I remember my grandma peeling cucumbers in the church garage and I remember my dad being so happy about the way the organ music just filled you up on a summer Sunday afternoon as people processed out of Mass. And I remember times when we didn't have any music, and some woman up front would just start singing something a capella, not fancy, not flashy, not anything technically good, but it hits you deeper than where music normally goes.

Looking back now, that little mountain church house,
Has become my life's corner stone,
It was there in that little mountain church house,
I first heard the word I've based my life upon.

--Little Mountain Church House, Ricky Skaggs

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Crucifix

I once heard a evangelical preacher named Brother Earl give some strong opinions about the crucifix. He went on and on about how it appalls him that "some Christians" depict Jesus hanging on the cross. I can still see the contortions in his body as he talked about his sheer disgust. To him, the crucifix was practically an abomination. His point was that Jesus is risen and is no longer on the cross. Showing Jesus on the cross seemed to deny some essential part of this man's faith.

I had a hard time grasping what was driving his rage. We celebrate and learn from all the events of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, so why there was some kind of prohibition to the cross seemed silly, if not downright counterproductive. If you really want to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, then the empty tomb is a much better symbol than an empty cross! We know the cross is empty--the empty tomb is a bit of a surprise! It just seemed like a way to pick on a symbol that some people find meaningful. Before the sermon, those in attendance were asked what our religious background was and many of us raised our hands and said "Catholic." I suspected anti-Catholicism was a driving force of this sermon, since the crucifix is such a central symbol of our faith.

Still, another minister reassured us afterwards that this preacher had good intentions and was just expressing his faith. Was there something more to this belief than just a jab at another denomination? In light of the themes in my last post (Why I'm Catholic), I may have stumbled on another way of looking at this.

To Catholics, Jesus shown on the cross is a defining message. It is the truest and more intimate statement of Incarnation. Not only did Jesus come to the earth, but he is with us as totally and as intimately as in our suffering and our death. He shares that with us. There is no place that he won't go. He is present in all the nooks and crannies, all the dungeons and torture chambers of this earth. The crucifix also shows the grim reality of what we're talking about--no one is whitewashing what really happened. There are scars, gashes and a crown of thorns. They tell us something about God, in Andrew Greeley's words.

Protestants are pilgrims on their way out of this world (see Eldebo's remarks). The world, our humanity, our earthly vices and comforts are all obstacles on our path. God is the source of all goodness, and the more we can focus on that instead of any person or artifact from this world the better. The death of Jesus on the cross isn't a moment that would be helpful to someone coming from this orientation. Jesus on the cross just proves the rottenness of the world.

One of the most central parts of the Christian tradition is that God and the world are not the same. God is "other." God and the world are two different entities/things/manifestations. The world is not God, and we are not divine. At first glance, it can be easy to get excited about certain eastern or pagan religions that see people and nature as divine, but there are limitations to that view. The fact that God is not us means that we can be in relationship with God. Divinity also seems to be mean more if there is such a thing as non-divinity. All Christians affirm this and it is absolutely at the core of all the Christian denominations that I'm aware of. Yet, God is still a part of this world, somehow. The question is how this distinction is perceived, which parts are emphasized, and how this presence of God is understood. Here is where we arrive at the Protestant and Catholic imaginations.

It goes back to that Greeley quote in my last post: To Catholics, the world can tell us something about God. There is nothing more radically human than Jesus dying on the cross. Jesus is part of this world in a most intimate, gruesome, personal way. Not just the cross but the whole Lenten journey teaches us about God. To Protestants, who tend to think the world is radically different from God, the death of Jesus on the cross is only the means to another end--a stepping stone before the final Revelation. To dwell at the foot of the cross is shortsighted, to them. The moment of Jesus' death is the darkest moment, when the forces of evil seem to have won, when Jesus seemed to be mortal and thus as depraved as the rest of us. The resurrection is what matters.

It is not that Protestants deny the presence of God in this world--I don't want to make them out to be entirely Gnostic. But how they imagine God to be present is where the difference lies. Jesus is almost like a messenger whose role is to give us a Word for how to get off of this godforsaken world. Catholics emphasize that Jesus is Emmanuel--God is with us. That isn't just a statement about a one-time showing of Jesus 2,000 years ago, but rather God is really with us right here and right now. You can be as isolated as someone dying alone suspended on a cross amidst public shame and outrage, and God is still with you.

No Catholic would deny the centrality of the Resurrection, nor deny that we are a pilgrim people. No Protestant would deny the reality of the Incarnation. I don't think I wrote anything from a theological perspective that would conflict with any of the dogma on the books of most Catholic or Protestant denominations. It is more of a matter of perspective and emphasis than anything else. Greeley says that Catholics and Protestants actually tend to think differently. Supposedly, Catholics thinks analogously while Protestants think dialectically. Our understandings of God's relationship to the world--although based on the same foundations--have over time evolved into different worldviews, perspectives and approaches for how to understand it all. At some point, these different perspectives turn into different theologies, but for the moment we can say that we agree on much, but by emphasizing certain parts we can lean in different ways.

Catholics are an Easter people. The resurrection is key to the faith. But we try to hold the goodness of God's creation as well. There is something that matters about the here and now. We are not just focused on life after death. We can learn about God by looking around in the world, and we can see God present there. Protestants are more relational, Catholics have more of a cosmology. All the events and incidents that led up to the crucifixion and resurrection are noteworthy.

So no, Brother Earl isn't off the hook. He was being petty and partisan. There is no reason someone coming from a Protestant background couldn't find tremendous significance in a crucifix. However, I can see how it is possible that he was genuinely reflecting a perspective that is consistent with a traditional Protestant worldview.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Why I'm Catholic

I have often felt the need to explain--and understand--why I am Catholic. I am not sure why.

Many reject the Catholic Church over its policies regarding women or homosexuals. Many reject the way the Church conducts itself in scandals or hypocrisy. Many don't believe in this or that dogma. I have always thought of myself as a natural candidate for the improvisational nature of Protestant worship and the progressive church structures of certain denominations. All those are very understandable positions, but for me they don't quite say it.

This isn't to say that there isn't anything obviously good about the Catholic faith, because there most certainly is. I'd be glad to talk about that. But in a culture where being Catholic can be an unpopular thing, where there are some very obvious parts of the Catholic Church that are quite uncomfortable, where there is much public attention on the faults of the Church and misunderstandings galore, I feel the need to say something.

Unfortunately, I may have to defer to the words of someone else, but I think these words do justice to what I'm trying to describe. Here is what Andrew Greeley has to say about the Catholic Imagination:

The Catholic "classics" assume a God who is present in the world, disclosing Himself in and through creation. The world and all its events, objects, and people tend to be somewhat like God. The Protestant classics, on the other hand, assume a God who is radically absent from the world, and who discloses (Himself) only on rare occasions (especially in Jesus Christ and Him crucified). The world and all its events, objects, and people tend to be radically different from God.

The downside of this quote is that is sets up a dichotomy between a Catholic worldview and a Protestant one. Those are not the only two religious options out there. Furthermore, each denomination or individual person may find themselves embodying a blend of the above criteria, so a comparison like this will always seem unfair and possibly divisive. However, for the sake of discussion, I think this dichotomy is useful, at least as a starting point. What I do like about this quote is that it shows that what it means to be a Catholic (or Protestant) goes much deeper than a particular rule or the Church's administrative structure. It has to do with how we relate to the world and how we imagine God to be present (as a side note, the rules and administrative structures should reflect this worldview, but that is a discussion for another day).

There is lot between the two camps that is very similar. The two traditions don't disagree on much, as far as basic dogma goes. Even most educated Catholics will say that Luther got it right--with conditions. It all starts from Faith. Period. One very important caveat is that Catholics see Faith, Hope and Love as one single gift of Grace. In other words, a person who has Faith will also have Hope and Love (works), too. You can't have one without the others. However, Protestants don't necessarily disagree with this, either. Most people may be surprised to find out that Catholics and Lutherans have issued joint statements in recent years stating that there are no major differences in their respective theologies on justification. How about that!

We also have in common the belief that all goodness comes from God. Our total dependence on God is probably the purest and most singular message in all of the Biblical and Church traditions: It's in the Psalms. It's in the Gospels. It's at the core of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and on down the line. The Church Fathers went to great lengths and great pains to maintain this distinction.

Greeley's quote, however, captures the essence of what is actually a pretty huge divide between Catholics and Protestants. What is different is how this relatively singular theology has come to be distilled through centuries of diverse culture and tradition. Protestants have taken this dependence on God to a different logical conclusion and a very different worldview unfolds as a result.

Protestants are focused on the relationship of the individual to God. To some denominations, everything hinges on this personal relationship. No Catholic would ever doubt that our God is unbelievably personal. However, Catholics are steeped in the Aquinas worldview that sees all of Creation as part of the unfolding of Grace. Our theology involves the whole Cosmos. Protestants, focusing on the idea that all goodness comes from God, have ended up seeing Creation as absent God and as a result not something to worry about. The world is simply the setting and the scenery. If you take this to Calvinist extremes, you can find yourself talking about the sheer depravity of all Creation and hating all that is here on the Earth, including yourself. To Protestants, the world is an alien land--get to know Jesus and forget the rest--grab his hand and hold on for dear life. Anything else is distraction, or even worse, a possible lure away from Jesus and, by extension, salvation.

To Catholics, the world is an access point to God--as evidenced in the theology of the Incarnation. God has come in human form, and the people of faith comprise the Body of Christ. We seem more willing to see the Mystery of the Incarnation as something of an ever-present reality, rather than just a one-shot deal with the person of Jesus.

Catholics are sacramental. I have to take this moment to tell my Protestant friends that you won't understand Catholics without understanding what it means to be sacramental. In the sacraments, the mundane becomes a way to touch God, to grab a hem of His garment. The bread & wine are the Body and Blood of Jesus. The waters of Baptism and the oils of Confirmation are ways that God touches us--for real. It is not just an abstract metaphor, but rather it is as real as the dirt under our feet. It is as ordinary--and extraordinary--as that. The "official" sacraments like (Baptism and Eucharist) lead us into an overall sacramental way of thinking. We see grace in and through Creation. The world can be blessed. God can come to us in bread, wine, water, and in the laying on of hands. The world is not a distraction but rather a place to learn about God, a place to touch God. The world is not God, but the world can show us something about God, and God can be present in this world.

Our Church experience is radically different than a Protestant service. For us, going to Communion is the climax of the service. The experiential nature of consuming the bread and wine and sharing a corporeal closeness with our Creator and Redeemer is what happens at Mass. Sometimes, we don't even have a homily. We are immersed in churches with rich atmosphere, the smell of incense, the light peering through stained glass windows, the meditative chants. We feel the discomfort of the wood of the kneelers, we kiss the wood of the Cross. We see the beauty on the face of Mary on a well-carved statue and it tells us something about God. We are a very earthy people. Protestants are more into words and The Word--it is more cerebral and relational.

The Reformation debates over having religious statues probably represent this the best. Nothing on this earth can represent God to Protestants--many Evangelicals today don't even want to see Jesus depicted on the Cross. Putting Jesus here on earth is somehow missing the point for them. For Catholics, it is pure Incarnation--Emmanuel, which translates as "God with us." Protestants have worried that soaking up the spirituality through a statue will lead someone to worship a false idol by mistaking the statue for what it represents. But it goes deeper than that--the very idea that a statue--a piece of this world--could represent any form or aspect of God is itself an idea uncomfortable to many Protestants. To a Catholic, we see ourselves as earthly beings and are going to use earthly means to learn about God, and God will come to us in and through this world.

The end result is that Catholics have a culture that is sensual and earthy. God is in the mundane. We dance, we drink, we revel in beauty and drama. I think we allow ourselves to be human, trusting that God comes to us through our humanity. We still have to transcend this world at some point, but it is to us a fulfillment of our humanity more than it is a discarding of it.

You could say that we all run the risk of falling into so-called "heresies." Protestants are in danger of falling into Gnosticism, seeing God as totally apart from the world. Catholics are in danger of Pelagianism, thinking that there is some inherent goodness in Creation just by itself. Catholics can sometimes not be relational enough and end up downright formulaic. Catholic can become too concerned with the material trappings of the Church. Protestants can disrespect the earth, thinking it doesn't matter. Catholics can forget their dependence on God. There are pitfalls no matter which way you go. Neither tradition affirms these heresies, but both can run the risk of leaning these ways.

These distinctions go further. There are ways in which these traditions nurture either individualism or a community vision. Catholics tend to have more of a community orientation. One could also argue that the Calvinist idea of the predestination of the Elect--even though it has been largely rejected--is still is a driving force in society and have generated an anxiety and a level of industriousness that is unhealthy. I'll leave it at that and might discuss these in more detail at another time. For the moment, I just want to say that these aspects also influence my Catholic identity.

I have mixed feelings about weighing my Catholicity in opposition to another tradition, in this case Protestantism. Maybe that's an antagonistic way to go about it. I could have written another post about being Catholic vs. Buddhist. While I have been enormously enriched by ecumenical dialogue and worship, while I can't imagine life without members of other faiths around me, at my core I have never really felt myself swayed by other faiths. The answer lies--at least the starting point--somewhere in this discussion.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


I just read a book for class called The God of Faith and Reason by Richard Sokolowski. Neat book. One of the sections was on Virtue.

In our modern culture, we tend to praise people who hold up to their beliefs at great personal sacrifice. It is as if we only value something if it were hard to do. There is no way to tell by looking at someone if they have good moral fortitude. Morality is determined not by a deed itself, but by the personal motivation behind it. You can only tell by looking deep within a person and exploring their motives and their struggles and all the internal stuff that goes on. Good deeds by themselves are suspect unless they were done with the "right" attitude. Bad deeds may have some good in them if the person did the best they could and that was all they could manage to do. In fact, if something was enjoyable we tend to think it is less worthy of praise since the person must have done it for "selfish" reasons.

In other words, if you feed the hungry but you did it because it was fun, then you aren't as much an example of morality as someone who feeds the hungry despite wanting to do something else with every fiber of their being but who does it anyway because it was the "right" thing to do.

In the days of Aristotle, the ultimate moral category was the virtuous person. This was a person whose ideals and willpower were so much in line that s/he delighted in doing good. S/he wanted to do good. It was easy to do good. The virtuous person was held up as an ideal. This person had no internal conflict.

The person who was able to do good despite being pulled in contrary directions was actually secondary to the virtuous person.

Somewhere along the line, we lost that notion of virtue. We don't believe there are people who are naturally oriented to good or evil. We just believe that there are people who struggle with internal motives of all sorts, and we tend to value the person who is able to hold his or her head up highly despite being pulled in contrary directions. I have usually gone along with this view, but I am coming to appreciate the classical perspective a bit more.

Isn't it great to be so in line with goodness that you just want it and can't get enough? Isn't that a better goal to be than someone who wants to do bad but is able to pull themselves kicking and screaming to do something good? It is wonderful to have that self control, but isn't it better not to even need it?

So internal motivations still count here. But it is also true that a good deed is a good deed despite the intentions behind it. And a selfish motive may actually be the ideal! I dunno, I don't have this all worked out, but the gears are really turning on this one.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Atheists and Newtonian Physics

It occurred to me the other day that atheists are stuck in Newtonian physics. They see the whole universe as nothing but a giant array of cause and effect relationships. Sooooo outdated!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Our Father

The Lord's Prayer

The words “Our Father” are probably the most revolutionary words ever spoken. They are so powerful, they have crept up on us so subtly, that it has taken thousands of years for people of the Judeo-Christian tradition to come to terms with their meaning. People have resisted it kicking and screaming, but the truth is that an entire earth-changing morality can be built off those simple two words: “Our Father.”

No matter how much we want to establish differences and build walls between people, our faith calls us—in the most gentle, subtle, even sneaky way imaginable—to universal brotherhood. You just can’t say “Our Father” without also admitting that all humans are siblings. We come from the same source. We share the same planet. We ultimately go to the same place. A morality of equality, fairness, and mutual love for one another is staring at us smack dab right in the face whenever we utter the words “Our Father.” God is as close to us as a parent, and we are as interconnected as brother and sister. There are inherent responsibilities for how we treat one another that come from that as soon as we admit that relationship.

This is one of those things we usually never notice, but once it is pointed out it seems obvious. However, whether we are aware of it or not, it is still there the whole time working on us from within in the gentle way that the Holy Spirit often works. Monotheism is radically political, especially such a personal notion of God as understood in the Abrahamic traditions.

Picture this: Humans lived in isolated tribes all across the world. They had different gods, different languages, different cultures, and different physical appearances. They did interact with each other, but probably from the vantage point of individual people they probably felt very separate. Every group has their prejudices and misunderstandings of other groups. Over time people came together to form cities and nations. Still, Europeans coming to Asia or Africa for the first time must have felt like they were going to a different planet when you consider all the differences. You can feel this same culture shock just going from a inner city ghetto to a suburban landscape in America.

Still, we say, “Our Father.”

A lot of people see their faith in terms of their own personal relationship with God—to them, it’s between me and God alone. A personal relationship is crucial, but that relationship is also social—we don’t say “My Father” in the Lord’s Prayer. Too often in America we focus on the individual and we don’t understand the social dimension very well. We as a people are in relationship to God.

A lot of people like to focus on what they think is individual morality—birth control, abortion, euthanasia. However, all those matters of individual morality are ultimately social issues, too. If all humans are created in the image and likeness of God from the moment of their creation to the moment of their death, and if all humans can call God “Our Father”, then these issues are not individual matters but a social ones. The love of God and the love of one another are meshed together in one commandment. My individual actions are social actions, too.

A lot of people have trouble seeing the connection between religion and politics. They see dry, tedious news commentary on TV and it seems to have little bearing on their faith life. However, politics is about how we come together as a society, how we make decisions and how we organize ourselves. It reflects what we value and what we yearn for. The most fundamental religious truths are going to have political manifestations.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Schismatics Returned

You have probably heard of the Catholic Church's recent move to bring back the schismatic group called The Society of Saint Pius X back into the fold. You may have heard that one of the bishops is a holocaust denier and an anti-Semite (those two seem to go hand in hand, don't they?) You may have wondered why it took the Pope so long to issue some kind of retraction, apology or statement in the wake of massive public outcry.

At first, some of the logic made sense: They wanted to re-unite people who have left, and they respect their intellectual freedom. An anti-Semite is an unacceptable choice for a bishop from a pastoral standpoint, but in theory at least his personal political views should be personal. However, that argument doesn't hold up all too well when you see that people are being excommunicated for speaking out in favor of the ordination of women, such as what happened to activist Fr. Roy Bourgeois. So much for intellectual freedom.

Other people ask me: Why did the parents of a child in Brazil who recently had an abortion get excommunicated, but murders, rapists and others do not face such a public shunning? I really can't give any good answer to this. I suppose all mortal sins carry with them a de facto excommunication, which holds until a penitent person reconciles with God and those they have wronged. Maybe the excommunication is just a way to draw public attention for other reasons. Hey, don't ask me, I don't support the move. But symbols are powerful and if you try to gauge where the Vatican is at based on what they emphasize and focus on, it does not paint a very good story.

Bringing the schismatics back is flawed on other levels. Denying the legitimacy of any of the Church councils is not permitted, yet these schismatics do not recognize the authority of Vatican II. So if I get this right, if you deny Vatican II, you can be welcomed back into the Church with open arms, even after you have had a forbidden ordination . . . but simply speak in favor of women's ordination and you are out. The math is easy here.

So many people put the pope on such a pedestal that they can't see the glaring bullshit right in front of them. This is basic common sense, and the only thing stopping people from seeing it are the rose-colored glasses. I am disappointed in my fellow Catholic at times like these, because they usually impress me by having that agrarian kind of common sense.

That begs the question then why would I want to be part of a church that crosses the line of sheer absurdity so often? That is a question for another day, but I can say that if I based my faith on the antics of the hierarchy I would have been gone a long time ago. That's just not where it's at for me.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Getting Wax Off Apples

I have heard all the arguments in favor of it, but I still don't like (nor do I trust) artificial wax on apples. For starters, I just don't like the taste and texture of it, regardless of whether there are no ill health effects.

I have tried different kinds of off-the-shelf solutions that supposedly remove it, but they end up leaving an even worse taste--sometimes an outrageously bad taste. And bad, as they say, is not good.

But alas, I have found a way to handle this: The hot water valve on the company coffee machine.

I put my apple in a cereal bowl and pour some hot water over the apple. I swish it around in the hot water for a few seconds, then wipe it off firmly with a paper towel. You can see the waxy film in the water, so it is doing some good.

At home, I simply get hot water from the tea kettle to do the same thing.

Am I reducing the nutritional value by subjecting the apple skins to hot water? I don't know. It does cause some slight discoloration and for apples with thin skin you can end up reducing the crunchiness of the skins substantially. However, most apples taste just fine. I suppose if there are any living microbes on the skin they might be killed off, but I don't imagine too many microbes surviving under a wax coating in the first place. The apple does not spend much time in the hot water, though.

The end result is that the apples tastes better.

Added Later: I have read that sometimes the wax can actually hold in pesticide residue that the growers did not clean off. Getting the wax off offers you then a better chance of getting any leftover pesticide residue off, as well!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Rice & Water

What's the difference between standing water and sitting water?

* * *

I am happy as a lark today. I cooked up some whole-grain, brown rice and it turned out beautiful, tasty and fluffy. It is from a 25 lb bag of rice that I got dirt cheap at GFS. I made another variety of rice last week, and it was a soggy, mooshy mess. It was hard enough to finish one batch of it, good thing I don't have 25 lbs of it. This new stuff is great.

People claim that rice is so difficult to make. I suppose that can be true, considering my experiences last week. But it seems that if you stick to the rules, most rice can turn out just fine. You just get some rice and use double the amount of water as rice. Throw a little bit of salt, butter or a bay leaf in. When it comes to a boil, put a lid on it and reduce the heat as low as it will go and still boil. After about 40 minutes, it is done and just needs to be fluffed up and seasoned (half the time for white rice). They say don't take the lid off while cooking, but I have done it on occasion to stir and it turned out fine. Squeeze a lime at the end and throw in some chopped cilantro and you can duplicate Chipotle rice.

I'll be making some fried rice from a recipe from Scott soon. It is also great to make what Erin and I call Chipotle a la casa--dump some beans and rice together and slobber with sour cream, salsa, guacamole, cheese, chopped onions--whatever you have on hand. It is a great meal that can be eaten on a regular basis. Pat and I like to have a batch of beans and rice available in the fridge at all times.