Community and Freedom, Part I

In a culture where individual rights and autonomy have become our gods, the concepts of community and freedom seem to contradict each other. Your needs and wants interfere with my needs and wants. More for you means less for me. I have the right to live in a world where no one else says or does anything to offend me. So we walk on eggshells to avoid offending. If frustrated enough, we blast each other – from a safe distance – via social media.

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis imagined Hell as an endless, dreary wasteland. Over eons, all of its inhabitants settle farther and farther away from every other inhabitant. After a century repeated moves, Napoleon’s house ends up 3000 miles from his nearest neighbor. Thus those in Hell avoid the irritation that other people cause them.

Like the inhabitants of Hell, the atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre saw the very existence of other people as limiting his freedom. The “gaze” of others – their evaluation of me and their implicit demands – controls my choices. To make sure that his mistress, Simone de Beauvoir, recognized his absolute freedom, he repeatedly wrote her detailed accounts of his continuing sexual liaisons with other women. Sartre’s play, No Exit, ends with the famous and chilling line, “Hell is other people.”

The Christian vision couldn’t be more different. To the Christian, Heaven is other people. Hell is endless alienation from God and from all others. Heaven is endless, ever deeper communion with the Lord and with all those others who are in communion with Him. We will spend all eternity rejoicing in the goodness of God Himself. But we will also rejoice in His amazing love, radiating through all of those united to the Lord.

Here on Earth, we are between Heaven and Hell. Community here is neither one blissful ecstasy of self-giving love, nor crushing slavery to others’ expectations. It is actually a kind of Purgatory. Community has the power to heal wounds, break chains, and free us to be the best-version-of-ourselves that God has called us to be. Community and freedom really do go together.

Commitment is essential to genuine community. I need to hang in there even when things get painful and sticky. John Eldredge, in Waking the Dead, describes Christian community as camping – in the desert – for a month – without tents. Community means being exposed, uncomfortable, closer to others than I would have chosen on my own. The strong temptation is to run.

The ideal size for a community is around 8-12 people. Jesus knew this in choosing the 12 apostles.  Any larger community needs to be a community of smaller communities. The small size of the ideal community ensures that I can’t avoid any member without its being obvious. It also means I can realistically get to know and be known quite well by every other member.

Having moved often for professional or faith-based reasons, I have experienced many small, faith-based communities over the years. The variety of personalities present in even the smallest communities – for example, marriage – never fails to amaze me. In each community, there have been several people with whom I connected very well. But there are others, too. We step on each other’s toes and rub each other the wrong way.

Both experiences are essential. We enter communities in order to belong and to feel supported by people with whom we share a common vision. But also, “iron sharpens iron, as one person sharpens another” (Prov 27:17). We often grow most through those we find most difficult. We rub off each other’s rough edges. We “trigger” each other’s wounds. You bring out my impatience or arrogance or selfishness or laziness or difficulty listening. I bring out yours. Once these surface, perhaps we can talk it through. Or I can bring it to prayer – “Lord, I know I’m overreacting. I find ___ so hard to love. Show me what’s going on. Show me what You love in him or her.”

Before my post-college stint in the Franciscan seminary community, I (incredibly) saw myself as a pretty easygoing, go-with-the-flow kind of guy. Living with a dozen other seminarians and the priests who mentored us, my illusion died quickly.  For example, I discovered how angry I could get when another seminarian pushed the envelope of orthodox Catholic teaching. This, though I was aware that my anger and harshness was a very poor advertisement for Catholic orthodoxy. With others, I realized how powerless and confused I felt when dealing with their sarcastic, gossipy dishonesty. As Fr. Leslie, one of the priests, commented, “Only massive denial can protect someone going through this program from some degree of self-knowledge.”

One principle underlying group therapy is that every group experience triggers issues from my family of origin. If I felt excluded by my family of origin, I may feel excluded in other groups. If I used intellectualism to stay emotionally safe in my family of origin, I may be excessively “heady” in a group setting. If I felt shut down by an overbearing family member, I may check out emotionally in the presence of dominating group members. Or I may feel and express the anger that I couldn’t when I was a child. The good news is that the group can provide a safe place to address these issues. The members can work through them in a supportive environment with a trained therapist.

A similar dynamic underlies small Christian community. The “bull in the china shop” to my right reminds me of my younger sister. The incessant talker to my left monopolizes the conversation – just like my dad, grrr! Like group therapy, but in an explicitly Christian context, a solid small community can be a safe place to work on these issues. Difficult feelings can be expressed, either in the group or one-on-one, amidst love and acceptance .

In one community I was involved in, a member had the guts to express his anger during a faith sharing.  A couple of people speaking at length had unwittingly deprived others of a chance to speak. This made the group run overtime. Those confronted, although initially surprised and hurt, were able to respond graciously. We adjusted the group format to safeguard against this problem and moved on.

Offering a space to feel and deal with my difficult emotions is just one way that community and freedom can go together. I’ll look at others in next week’s post.





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Choosing Life and Blessing

“Choosing life and blessing” was the theme of last Sunday’s first reading. In his last words to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land, Moses exhorts the beloved and frustrating band he’s led for 40+ years. “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live” (Deut 30:19).

What does “choosing life” mean in the day-to-day?  I had breakfast last week with one inspiring example. From his late teens on, my friend “Jesse” has gone through trials that remind one of Job. They began when he suffered multiple injuries while in combat in Vietnam. One of these made him unable to have children.

In the last few years, Jesse’s wife has been diagnosed with early Parkinson’s. Jesse himself has suffered work-related injuries that disqualified him from continuing at his long-time job. His job required checking and maintaining equipment that, if mishandled, could explode and cause devastating injury or death. Shortly after his work injuries, a teen driver was taking her friends on a joy-ride that was illegal under her permit. She plowed into Jesse’s stopped car at 60 mph. The resultant injuries left him permanently disabled. He’s had to have surgeries that burned out the nerves in his back to alleviate the relentless, severe pain. He can’t walk now without a cane.

About a year ago, Jesse’s 30-something son contacted him. Jesse had no idea that he even existed. The son was conceived before Jesse’s combat injury, in a brief relationship. The mother, in order not to jeopardize Jesse’s military career, never told him of the pregnancy.  Jesse’s son had been searching for him for years. After having accepted he’d never have children, Jesse and his wife had a chance to meet this son, his wife, and their grandchildren. Things were good, despite some red flags. For example, when Jesse mispronounced his daughter-in-law’s Hispanic name during their first meeting, she left the table in anger. But they all celebrated Christmas together that year. Jesse gave his newfound family  an album full of memorabilia and photos going back to Jesse’s kindergarten report card, so that they could get an idea of Grandpa’s life before their reunion.

Abruptly, his son and daughter-in-law broke off contact. In a scathing text, his daughter-in-law told Jesse that she’d destroyed the album. His son didn’t respond to Jesse’s followup texts. When Jesse continued to attempt reconciliation, his daughter-in-law texted him. If he contacted them again, she’d put out a restraining order against him. No reasons given.

Through it all, Jesse is choosing life and blessing. A man of deep faith, he knows that God has permitted all of this to happen for some greater good. He continues to witness to God’s love. He is deeply hurt by the loss of contact with his son and grandchildren. But he harbors no resentment. “If people don’t want me in their lives, I don’t force myself on them.” He has forgiven the teen driver that left him disabled. “She was just a dumb kid.”

Jesse has a soft heart for animals and for people. A gentle, quiet soul, he rarely shows anger. But you don’t want to mistreat an animal in front of him. “Hell hath no fury…” He rescues cats. I don’t know how many he and his wife now have, but there are a lot. His own suffering has made him sensitive to all suffering creatures.

Jesse’s finances are limited. But when we go out to breakfast, I practically have to arm-wrestle him to pay for the meal. As one of two Protestants who attend the Catholic Bible study I co-facilitate, he made a substantial donation that more than covered paper goods, coffee, and sugar for that year. His medical issues haven’t allowed him to attend much lately. But when he has, his rare but insightful comments are unfailingly positive. This is despite the occasional “where Protestants go wrong” orations by a couple of the blunter members.  But he generally just chooses to listen.

Jesse and I are unlikely friends, by most standards. I’m a clinical psychologist. Although he was initially studying to go into nursing, most of Jesse’s career has been as a sanitation engineer. But God put us into each other’s hearts from almost our first meeting. I want to be more like Jesse. I want to have his positivity, his perseverance, and his uncomplaining good humor in the midst of difficulties. He inspires me. His choosing life and blessing in very trying circumstances makes me want to do so, too. He shows me the power of a life lived for and with Jesus. He passes on the life and blessing he himself has chosen.

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Belong, Believe, Behave

The parish model of Catholicism, as it currently functions, is dead. We need a new paradigm. As Pope Francis has repeatedly said, the Church needs to go out into the marketplace, because increasingly, most of the people out there will not come in. If we continue our inward focus on maintenance, the churches we maintain will become increasingly empty. “No religious affiliation” is the fastest-growing segment of U.S. society, in terms of faith issues.

The playing field has changed. As Stanley Hauerwas notes in Resident Aliens, it was possible, up until 1960 or so, to confuse being a Christian with being a good American citizen. He goes on to say that even then, the two were scarcely synonymous. The Constitution of the United States is great, so far as it goes. But it is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Few today believe that being a good U.S. citizen is the same as being a good Christian. Over the past few decades particularly, the federal government has become increasingly hostile to the practice of Christianity in the public square. Many circles see Christians, especially orthodox Catholics, as the last bigoted bastion against tolerance, inclusion, compassion, and progress. The media, particularly, tend to present the Church as at best irrelevant, and at worst, a really unattractive group to belong to.

Add to this a growing rejection of objective moral truths, deep suspicion of authority in general, and an overriding emphasis on the rights of a thousand special interests. “Because I/God/Father/the pastor said so” no longer works. Who are you, or who is the Church, to tell me how to behave? Or what to believe? My truth lies within me. I need to follow my heart. I need to be true to myself. How dare you judge me? Why should I believe something just because you tell me it’s so, or tell me God told you so? Whose God? Why would I want to belong to your group when there’s a thousand others who already accept how I behave and what I believe?

Fr. James Mallon’s book Divine Renovation is a sometimes painfully honest book about this crisis. Fr. James Mallon offers “belong, believe, behave” as the essential paradigm for a renewed Church – a Church of true disciples of Jesus. Many nondenominational churches are thriving precisely because they have already read the signs of the times and responded with admirable zeal and creativity. We Catholics need to learn from them, in great humility.

Mallon argues that the pre-1960s approach for many churches was “behave, believe, belong”. Act and look a certain way (behave). We’ll teach you the basics of the faith (believe). Then you’ll be a legitimate church member (belong).

In the current climate we have to reverse our approach. People need to belong, then believe, then behave. This strategy is hardly new – every organization from the Navy Seals to Greenpeace to the NRA to NOW employs it. For example, my son Michael and his fiancee, Grace, recently had Mary and me watch a documentary on the minimalist approach. It was well done and intriguing. We followed the journeys of two friends who had left their corporate jobs and the rat race. For one, the crisis was the death of his mother and his subsequent divorce. His all-consuming climb to the top had left those relationships neglected. The friends saw the problems with relentless consumerism and decided to minimalize. The question changed from “What do I want?” to “What do I need?” They discovered that, materially, they needed very little indeed. Their slogan: “Love people. Use things.”

The minimalist advocates seemed like a couple of good guys. As Michael pointed out, they’re halfway there. Like the rich young man, they have sold all they have and given it to the poor (Lk 18:18-30). All that remains is for them to follow Jesus. Still, they have made a courageous, freeing start. They’d be cool to hang out with. I’d love to pick their brains and share my own thoughts. They’ve got me thinking about my own excess material baggage. Maybe I’ll start clearing out some of that. Belong, believe, behave.

Jesus followed the belong, believe, behave paradigm, as Pope Francis has eloquently pointed out. He reached out to the outcast, not in pity but in sincere fellowship. He scandalized the Pharisees, major behave-believer-belongers, by hanging out with tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes. He accepted, included, and loved those groups that were pariahs to the majority culture. He formed relationships with them. These were real relationships. It was not, “I’ll be friends with you in order to convert you”. It was, “I love you. Because I love you I want you to have the fullness of life that I offer. But I love you no matter what.”

Yes, Jesus didn’t stop there. After he healed the man born blind, the Pharisees cast the man out. Jesus called him to faith: “Do you believe in [Me]? (Jn 9:35)” After forgiving the woman caught in adultery, Jesus said, “Go, and do not sin again. (Jn 8:11b)” If I truly love somebody, I will eventually need to call my friend on his or her self- or other-destructive behavior. But it has to be in the context of a real friendship. You aren’t a notch on my belt, another person I’ve brought into the Church. You are someone I care about, whose autonomy and individuality I respect.

Our parish is just starting “Alpha”, an evangelization program that started in a London Anglican church. Its founder had been an atheist, until two dear friends’ conversions prodded him to look into Christianity himself. Alpha embodies the belong, believe, behave approach. The people (“guests”) may be of deep faith or of no faith. Generally, a believing friend will have invited him or her. Each of the 11 weekly sessions begins with a meal in which the guests get to know each other. Guests meet with the same group, week after week, about 8 to a table. The host at each table does not bring up faith matters during the meal, though the guests are free to. It’s about forming a community, because people need to belong.

After each meal, the DVD for that evening presents questions like, “What’s life all about? Is there a God? Who is Jesus? What is prayer?” People on the streets of London, the majority nonbelievers, give their spontaneous answers. Then the head of Alpha gives the Christian perspective. Following the DVD, the table answers questions based on the DVD. The facilitator doesn’t correct or instruct or proselytize. He or she simply thanks each person who shares for being honest regarding feelings and beliefs.

The topics of the video gradually address Christian belief in more depth. Those with no faith or new in the faith begin to experience the beauty of Christian community. “These people love me where I’m at. I feel like I belong. They believe that their relationship with Jesus is the key to the meaning and joy and peace I’m lacking. Is it possible that what they believe has something to it?” The progression then is to, “How these people live their lives – how they behave – is so different from what I’m used to. But there’s something beautiful about it. I need to consider it.”

Alpha provides a great model – there are others – of how to bring people into discipleship. It show how we Christians need to attract nonbelievers, or tepid believers, by the love we live out. We need first of all to welcome: you belong. As you experience how life-giving Christian community is, you begin to believe. And finally, how your brothers and sisters in community behave – because, with their faults, their behavior is rooted in truth, joy, hope, and meaning – you begin to do likewise.

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Harden Not Your Hearts

“If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.” These words struck me today, while preparing a Bible study on Hebrews 3. The author of Hebrews is quoting Psalm 95:7b-8. What are the dangers of a hardened heart?

Aristotle notes that virtue and vice are the fruit of repeated actions. Our actions form who we are. Even our mental activities do – the kinds of thoughts and emotions we allow to occupy our hearts and minds. If I do something good repeatedly, I form a habit of virtue. If I do something evil repeatedly, I form a habit of vice. For example, if I train myself to wait until the other person is finished speaking before I do, or I make a habit of not complaining about slow service at a restaurant, or a too-lengthy sermon, I eventually become patient. If I repeatedly make snap judgments about people’s motives, assume the worst about them, and indulge habitually in cynicism, I become an angry and harsh person.

The Catholic distinction between venial and mortal sin expands on this. All of us sin. Some of our sins are occasional, while others are habitual. For example, I can occasionally be sarcastic in a hurtful way, but not usually. Mainly through my wife’s prompting and example, I have generally eliminated hurtful humor from my communication.

But rigidity is another story. I tend to form my opinions quickly and hold them strongly. I dislike reviewing them, or even more, modifying them. I’m not talking about matters of faith and morals. “Rigidity” in certain matters is actually faithfulness to one’s convictions, formed by the teaching of Scripture and the Church. But other topics and areas are far less clearcut. The danger in rigidity about the latter is that I can get so hardened in my views that, eventually, I can’t modify them. That is a morally dangerous place to be. I need to be vigilant lest my rigidity so hardens my heart that I slide into mortal sin. Jesus’ harshest words were for the Pharisees. In their arrogance, they said, “We see.” Yet their rigidity had utterly blinded them to God’s presence in Jesus. (Jn 9:41).

So I need to form a habit of listening to the Holy Spirit, Who can make my heart soft and my will pliable. Someone may express an opinion I find objectionable or obnoxious. Is the Lord leading me to consider the merits of the opinion? Do I need to see if it, or at least parts of it, holds water? Even if the opinion is objectively wrong, can I express my disagreement in such a way that still respects the person? “Harden not your hearts.”

Like all couples, Mary and I get into tiffs from time to time. This Sunday, I was putting on my coat and jarred a fragile holy picture on the table by our entryway. She asked me to be more careful. I reacted irritably. “Mary, I know I have to be more careful after knocking something. I’m not 12 years old.” Etc. Eventually I paused long enough for the Holy Spirit to get a word in edgewise. It was something like, “Sean, you’re being a jerk. Admit it, and move on.” So I did. Ironically, later in the evening, I knocked over and broke a gold-rimmed wineglass of Mary’s grandmother. I had to laugh. “I guess I am a bit clumsy.” And Mary, graciously, laughed with me.

But it didn’t have to go that way. Sometimes I take longer to recover. I could have – and sometimes have – gone down the road of, “She’s so demanding! She wants everything to be perfect. What if I talked to her that way?” Etc., etc. Reviewing another’s faults – “taking somebody else’s inventory”, in AA terms – is always destructive. “Love…does not keep a record of wrongs” (1 Cor 13:5, NIV). For us to keep a record is a sure way to harden our hearts.

If we continue keeping that record, we may write the person off altogether. “I’ve tried and tried, and I’m just done.” How dangerous that is! Amidst my many faults, I do have a heart for reconciliation. Sure, I’m tempted to go with, “He’s a *#@!%; she’s a %$#@&”, and cut that person off for good. But there’s that pesky “…as we forgive those who trespass against us” – Jesus’ own words, central to His teaching. I can’t get around that, as tempting as that is. “Your Love Is a Song’, by the Christian band Switchfoot, has the line, “I’ve been keeping my heart wide open.” I’ve got to do that. How can I call myself a Christian if I do not? “Harden not your hearts.”

It’s possible to harden one’s heart not only against our neighbor, but against God Himself. Difficulty trusting the Lord may stem from difficult experiences with untrustworthy humans, or  bad encounters with professedly religious people. But to harden one’s heart against God is to refuse even the possibility of belief.

C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, imagines how people in Hell, if allowed to visit the outskirts of Heaven, might respond to one more chance to choose Heaven. But the visitors he portrays are so frozen in their rejection of God that all but one reaffirm their choice of Hell. One character is asked to let go of her anger at God for her son’s untimely death. If she does, she’ll eventually enter Heaven and meet her beloved son there. But she refuses “on principle”. To let go of her anger would be condoning God’s injustice. She “just couldn’t” get herself to do so. If being in Heaven means being with Him, she’d rather do without her son as well.

Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Unless we progress, we regress.” Our hearts are getting softer, more docile to the Holy Spirit’s leading, more open to God’s grace, freer to love and be loved, as we journey toward eternal blessedness. Or they are hardening into the frozenness and utter lack of freedom, grace, and love that is Hell. Through Jesus Christ, Heaven is ours for the choosing. “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.”

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Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself

That we have “nothing to fear but fear itself” is a paraphrase from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. Few phrases are more apt in the current political atmosphere. The fear now, I believe, is of listening to one another. We are afraid to risk believing that “the other side” sincerely believes what it says it believes.

Within the span of a week this January of 2017, two marches were scheduled, the March for Women and the March for Life.The March for Women is new, a response to deep concerns about how the Trump administration will handle women’s rights as well as the rights of LGBTQ, Hispanic, African-American, and Islamic people. The turnout was reportedly quite large, with some estimating half a million in Washington and two million worldwide. Many of my relatives participated in or posted their support of the march. The media coverage was widespread and intense.

The March for Life began in 1974 as a protest against the legalization of abortion through Roe v. Wade, in the hopes of overturning its abortion-on-demand effects. It is scheduled for January 27th. It has steadily grown in participation, with numbers marching in Washington reportedly topping 650,000 in the 2016 march. There are parallel marches worldwide. In contrast to the March for Women, media coverage will be scant, if past years are any indication. Not only scant, but skewed. My son attended several years ago in D.C. Although the pro-life marchers clearly outnumbered pro-choicers by at least a hundred to one, CNN’s very brief coverage stated that, although there was no official head count, there might have been more pro-lifers than pro-choicers.

So where does “fear” come in?  A recent article,  reported that New Wave Feminists, a self-declared pro-life feminist group, wanted to be part of the March for Women. At first, they were included as partners of the march – until strong protests from other feminists led to them being dropped within days. Current comments on the article uniformly proclaim pro-abortion feminists’ shock and even nausea that any outside the “pro-woman = pro-abortion and pro-contraceptive” orthodoxy could be allowed to be at the table. As a National Review article details, by this logic Susan B. Anthony and most early feminists would have also been excluded from the march.

While the Left celebrates tolerance and diversity, I see in many on both the Left and the Right – and in orthodox Christians, myself included, who refuse to be categorized as either- a real fear of listening. Imagine the following: Planned Parenthood and New Wave Feminists (or even more, National Right to Life) sit down, each group saying, “Ok, what is it that you believe, and why?” Each side does some reflective listening. “So, in your view, much of women’s oppression in the past has come from a lack for reproductive freedom. And you can’t truly have human dignity without the ability to choose.” “So, in your view, because more than half of those killed by abortion are women, and some women are coerced into abortion, to be consistently pro-woman and pro-women’s-autonomy is to be pro-life.” Then a discussion would follow. Neither side would likely change its views – but they would at least understand the other’s views.

Take any other groups that rarely dialogue: pro-Trump and pro-Hillary; Christian and Muslim; for and against gun control; those on either side of the immigration question. We fear each other. We fear the unknown – who is the other. We demonize and dehumanize. And out of fear, we build walls. We live in our separate bubbles, our boxes, to the point where we not only don’t, we can’t think outside the box. At one gathering years ago, the speaker said, “I’m assuming that no one at this table voted for Bush?”, along the lines of “because no thinking person could.” As he glanced at my wife and me, he realized his assumption was wrong and changed the subject.

Gene, the protagonist in the classic coming-of-age novel A Separate Peace, reflects about his heroic friend, “Only Phineas never was afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone.” He goes on to muse that Phineas would have done miserably in combat. He would have crossed the battle lines, shaken hands, and chatted with the enemy. He saw no enemies – as with Will Rogers, there were no strangers, just friends he hadn’t met.

The chasm is so deep between Phineas and the current political climate. We lack the courage to believe that truth will prevail. We don’t see that freedom of speech is the only way to go, that opposing views make for healthy discussion. Instead, we have “hate speech”: your views are so wrong, I cannot even allow you to express them. Some people are so willfully ignorant, I don’t owe them even basic human respect. What you say so offends me, I will pass laws forbidding you to say it.

I was amazed by the outbreak of fear at Trump’s election, I confess. I realized how little traffic I have with those outside of my Omaha Catholic bubble. There are, of course, (call me a cynic) the school children who’ll use any excuse to get out of school, including being fear-stricken by Trump’s election.  But apparently, LGBTQ people, immigrants, African-Americans, and others truly see Trump’s election as the beginning of the Reign of Terror. Honestly, my gut reaction was, “Come on!! Cut the drama and get a grip!” But I have to begin by giving the benefit of the doubt. The appropriate – nay, the Christian response – would be – “I’m having a hard time understanding how afraid you are. Tell me about it.”

The core difficulty with so many of the couples I counsel is, “He/she won’t listen. He/she doesn’t get where I’m coming from.” Why don’t we listen? Perhaps it’s the fear that the other’s perspective will poison or distort mine. Perhaps it’s the fear that listening to a radically different perspective means mine won’t be heard or taken seriously. Yet listening potentially builds bridges, while arguing, name-calling, and discounting the other does not. Love builds bridges. Fear builds walls. And the U.S. is fast becoming a world of walls.

We have nothing to fear but fear itself. “Perfect love casts out all fear – therefore, love is not yet make perfect in one who is afraid” (1 Jn 4:18). I cannot love you and fear you at the same time. I cannot love you and refuse to listen at the same time. I cannot love you and refuse your right to speak. Let us speak the truth in love, yes. But listen as well.



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Angels and Demons, Part II

In my last post, I outlined how the Evil One or demons tempt us to sin. But sometimes the demonic works through doubt, division, discouragement, or confusion rather than specific temptations.

I was in a prayer meeting music ministry for years. Unfailingly, irritability would run high at the beginning of our practices. Someone realized that this wasn’t just a collective bad mood. The Evil One’s minions were apparently stirring up discord among us. We realized we needed to pray against this at the very start of every practice. We did, something would lift, the strife would evaporate, and the practices would go far more smoothly.

All couples and families occasionally get on one another’s nerves. But usually the cause is pretty straightforward, or one of the family members may be habitually moody. But family tension sometimes arises for no apparent reason. Quirks or habits that wouldn’t normally bother us suddenly do.

This may be due to demonic interference. With characteristic wit, C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters depicts the advice a senior devil gives to a junior devil about stirring up resentment between his “patient” (the man the junior devil is attempting to lead to damnation) and his mother.

When two humans have lived together for many years it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your patient that particular lift of his mother’s eyebrows which he learned to dislike in the nursery, and let him think how much he dislikes it. Let him assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy – if you know your job he will not notice the immense improbability of the assumption. And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her. As he cannot see or hear himself, this easily managed.

Such demonic “stirring of the pot” often precedes a spiritual breakthrough. The Evil One unwittingly shows his hand. Other forms of demonic interference include unaccountable discouragement, depression, self-pity, or even physical illness. Whatever’s going on, we arm ourselves with holy water and bless the house from top to bottom. The sense of oppression clears. If the “attack” takes a milder form, one can pray a simple prayer in the authority we have as disciples of Jesus. “In Jesus’ name, I command any oppressing spirit to leave me and go to the Cross of Jesus”, or “Jesus, please free me from temptation or oppression” or even “Lord, help me.”

The Evil One may also work through fear. Years ago, I stayed overnight at the major seminary of the Archdiocese of Chicago, in order to attend the priesthood ordination of some former seminary classmates the next morning. On the drive out to the seminary, I was spooked. I felt a completely baseless fear and dread that increased as I got closer to the seminary. That night, I fell asleep only with difficulty, after many prayers and with a Bible clutched to my chest.

The ordination was glorious, a celebration of faith and commitment. Several of us went out to lunch afterward, and I mentioned my bizarre night-before.  A priest in our group nodded. “That always happens the night before ordinations. There is a Satanic coven in Libertyville [the neighboring town] that prays against the seminary that night. I was so creeped out the night before my ordination that I drove 30 miles to my parents’ house, slept there, and drove back early the next morning.”

In Perelandra, the second book of C.S. Lewis’s “Space Trilogy”, one characters recounts a similar experience of spiritual attack. He was to meet a friend  to help prepare him for a divine mission to the planet Venus. (It’s a long but wonderful story.) To get to the house where they’re meeting, he has to go through some woods. The woods unaccountably assume a menacing aspect. He becomes frightened and feels a very strong urge to flee back to the train station he just left. Odd thoughts begin to flood his mind (“Am I going crazy? What if I start screaming? What if I start screaming and never, ever stop?”). By the time he gets to the unlit house, he practically collapses in terror.

When his friend Ransom arrives shortly after and sees the character’s fright, he comments, “I see you made it through the barrage.” Ransom explains that there are dark spirits who prevented Ransom from meeting the character at the train station, and who were mentally terrorizing the character during his horrifying walk through the woods.

In the lives of the saints, the Evil One’s attacks can be quite dramatic. St. John Vianney, a 19th century parish priest, converted hardened sinners from all over France through the ministry of Confession. He spent up to 18 hours a day in the unheated, uncooled confessional, and 3000 people a day would come to the village of Ars, where he was the pastor. He could read hearts – that is, he might tell a penitent the latter’s unconfessed sins, or other details of his or her life he couldn’t possibly have known.

The Devil apparently hated St. John’s ministry, subjecting him to actual physical attacks almost nightly. The harassment also included crashes and other loud noises. One night, the guests in the bedroom below his were awakened by what sounded like a train going through the saint’s bedroom. On another occasion, his bed curtains spontaneously burst into flame. After particularly rough nights, St. John would tell friends, “A big fish [that is, a notorious sinner] is coming today.” The Evil One apparently knew that a particularly influential soul was going to be saved the next day, and he would vent his fury on St. John.

So if you’re experiencing any of the above, that’s good. It means that you are a person of interest to the Evil One. That is, you are enough of a blessing to others to worry him. You may also – unlike Frodo, through the Holy Spirit, not through a magic Ring – be getting more sensitized to spiritual realities. As I said at the beginning of Part I, much better to know you’re in a battle than to keep getting hit by unexpected attacks. Angels and demons do exist. They do affect us. We have weapons to fight them. God has won the battle.

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Angels and Demons, Part I

Certain categories have become so much a part of my everyday life that I seldom stop to think about, much less blog about them. The reality of angels and demons, and how they affect us, is one such category. Even many devout Christians aren’t aware of this cosmic battle affects everyday life. But we are combatants in a “war of the worlds” whether we like it or not.

All human beings live in two worlds at once, the material and the spiritual. Spiritual warfare has to do with how those worlds impinge on each other. St. Paul tells us, “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12) Not only visible, material forces affect our well-being and our choices. There are unseen, spiritual forces at work around us, and sometimes in us, at all times.

In The Lord of the Rings, the Elves live in both the seen and unseen worlds at once. Frodo, the central character, experiences this reality whenever he puts on the Ring. On the one hand, he beholds the Ringwraiths, the Ring’s demonic guardians, in all of their horror. But he can also see the glory radiating from the Elves. In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, those spiritual realities are normally veiled to mortal eyes.

As Christians enter more deeply into life in the Lord, the veil over our spiritual senses is similarly removed. What we profess in the Creed – that God created both visible and invisible worlds – we begin to experience. First among invisible realities is, of course, God Himself. Opposing Him is a fallen angel, the Devil – powerful in comparison to us, but less than a gnat in comparison to God’s power. Under them are their respective cohorts – God’s good angels, and the Devil’s bad angels, also known as demons. Ever since Eden, these cohorts have been in “immortal combat” for our souls.

Angels and demons can affect both material and immaterial entities. For example, the Evil One afflicted not only Job, but his family, with one material disaster after another (Job 1:13-2:7). Jesus freed an afflicted boy of what appeared to be epilepsy but was actually demonic (Mk 9:14-29). Angels can and do intervene for our safety – there are accounts of people moved out of the way of an oncoming vehicle by unseen hands. Peter was freed from prison by an angel (Acts 12:6-11).

Much more frequently – every day, in fact – angels and demons work by influencing our thoughts and emotions. Angels prompt us toward the good, and demons tempt us toward evil.

Every good or bad thought does not have a spiritual cause.  Many good impulses may flow from virtues that we’ve been endowed with or have acquired through others’ good influence and our own efforts. Some promptings to do good may come directly from the Lord Himself. Still others may come from angelic influence. Similarly, temptations to do wrong may come from our innate disposition or from bad habits we’ve cultivated. But other impulses to do bad may come from demonic influence.

Experientially, the prompting of the Holy Spirit or of an angel will “sound” like my next thought. For example, a friend comes to mind for whom I decide to pray. I find out the next day that he was really struggling but then experienced some relief. Or a current example: I decide to blog on spiritual warfare and the topic comes up prominently in three of my sessions the same day. These could be coincidences. But as one preacher said, “Since I accepted Jesus, the number of coincidences in my life has increased astronomically.” As I continue in the Christian life, I get more sensitive to this pattern of external events confirming what I later realize are divine or angelic inspirations.

But all is not sunshine. Just as good promptings sound like my next thought, so do promptings from the Devil or an evil spirit. Occasionally, if strong enough, they may have an alien feel. For example, in Waking the Dead, John Eldredge recalls an incident where his wife suggested he exit the expressway to get out of a traffic jam. To his shock, his “next thought” was, “You should divorce her!” Fortunately, he immediately recognized the source of that thought and ordered it out in Jesus’ name.

Normally, though, where the temptation comes from isn’t that clear. Whatever the source, of course, our job is to resist it. The first, crucial step is awareness that we are in a battle. In Waking the Dead, John Eldredge points out that the Allied forces on D-Day knew all too well that they were entering a ferocious conflict. No one on Omaha Beach was saying, “Oh my gosh – they’re shooting at us!” In contrast, most Christians believe that Satan exists. Yet many are surprised to learn how utterly his malice focuses on human beings – how bitter his hatred of us and how insidious his tactics. He “comes to steal and kill and destroy” (Jn 10:10a). His attacks are quite real. Thank God, so is the assistance given us by the forces of good. To be continued…

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Our Cheatin’ Hearts

I returned to work yesterday after a wonderful week of Christmas vacation. The day after Christmas, we got the long-expected but glorious news of our son Michael’s engagement to his lovely girlfriend, Grace. And in another celebration of love, on New Year’s Eve, Mary and I listened to some of our favorite oldies and danced by the firelight to “Tupelo Honey”, the song for our first dance at our wedding, and to “The Lady in Red”. The latter captures a bit of Mary’s loveliness.

Our New Year’s Eve of dance and romance was emotional – luminous. But we couldn’t help noticing that the songs that grabbed us most were about unrequited longing, disappointed love, and loss whose very pain was its beauty. Why is it that those songs tug most at our hearts? In the most wonderful moments, there’s a hint of a sadness. All wonderful moments come to an end, and I don’t know when the next one will be.

Keats captures this in his Ode to a Grecian Urn. If only the lovers’ kiss painted on the urn could last forever! If only the man’s pursuit of the maiden never ended! Keats concludes that beauty alone can satisfy the human longing for eternity. But in reality, the most beautiful experiences don’t satisfy. They actually awaken more longing. Gaze on the Pieta. Hike through the Colorado Rockies. Their very beauty points to a “more”, to a something they cannot capture.

There are two main ways to deal with the sense of unfulfilled longing that even the best experiences can’t satisfy. One approach is, “You expect too much. Be satisfied with what you have.” Or more cynically –  “That’s just the way it is. Don’t hope for too much, and you’ll never be disappointed.”

Buddhism offers another variation on this option. It correctly notes that desire is the source of all of our pain. Its solution is to kill desire, to discipline oneself to long for nothing at all. Once all desire is dead, I am free to be dissolved into the All – into Nirvana. There, not only my desires, but I myself, am annihilated completely.

The second approach is to explore what these desires point to. What purpose do they serve? Why are human beings apparently unique in having desires that the purely material cannot satisfy? We may have sexual intimacy, food, sleep, shelter, clothing, physical health, and good relationships.  But even in great abundance, these fail to satisfy. We can understand people who are satisfied simply with three square meals a day and a bed to sleep in. But- unless they are unavoidably limited by their situation or some sort of disability – they aren’t the people we admire or want to imitate.

Those we admire most are the ones willing to sacrifice these for the sake of a greater good. They are magnanimous. They have great souls, and they desire greatly. They desire more, the more that they know they were created for. They live by faith, hope, and love. They not only become beautiful souls. They flood everyone they touch with the outflowing of their goodness.

In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis points out, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Our cheatin’ hearts can deceive us. We get disappointed or hurt. We may have suffered rebuffs when we opened up about what we really want, what fires our hearts. So we shut our hearts down. As Christians, we may even hide behind a false humility. “Who do I think I am? Others are worthier than I. God has more important things to worry about.” But we are children of God. United to Jesus, we share His worthiness. God counts even the sparrows.

St. Paul tells us to open our hearts (2 Cor 7:2). The Lord urges us, “Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it” (Ps 81:10). St. Ignatius of Loyola bases his whole theology of discernment on desires. “By their fruits will you know them” (Mt 7:15): if our desires lead us to peace and joy, a sense of life to the full, then they are from God. We need to increase, nurture, go hog-wild with such godly desires. Get a person to talk about his or her passion, and you will see him or her come alive. My desires are what make me me. God desires me to be me. He desires that I desire greatly. Our cheatin’ hearts tell us otherwise. But our cheatin’ hearts are wrong.

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Feeling Stuck

I was feeling stuck as I wondered what to blog about today. I went for my morning walk, praying for some inspiration. “Lord, what’s the word You want me to speak?” Crickets.

The last seven days of Advent are the countdown to Christmas. In heightened anticipation, the Church uses a different “O Antiphon” for each of these days. The priest speaks or sings the O Antiphons just before the Gospel. For example, “O come, O Wisdom from on high…” is the antiphon for December 17th. That favorite of Advent songs, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is simply a setting of these seven Gospel acclamations. Each acclamation cries out to Jesus under a different title to come to us and save us.

The “O Antiphon” for today is “O Key of David”. I’m feeling stuck. Jesus is the Key.

Just last Sunday, a friend of mine noted that a good principle of prayer is to pray from exactly where you’re at. If you have no sense of the Lord’s presence, pray about that. If you’re angry with Him, pray about that. If you haven no idea how to pray, pray that. So, if I feel stuck about blogging, I can write about feeling stuck.

Several years ago I told a house guest that I was feeling stuck. My feeling toward God was,”You have hemmed my way in with fitted stones” (Lam 3:9). As I’ve blogged before, I have this “fire in my bones” for the renewal of the Church. I also persistently have a sense of a call to something more in terms of ministry: retreat work, workshops, conferences, book writing, teaching and speaking. Grateful as I was for God’s blessings, I wanted to move – not geographically – although I didn’t know where.

During this period, I had several dreams in which I was hiding fleeing from pursuers into various ramshackle, precarious, tower-like structures. The structures were full of chinks and holes through which my pursuers could easily see me and attack. I felt afraid and vulnerable. My guest thought that the dreams and the feeling stuck might be connected. “Perhaps the Lord is ‘keeping’ you stuck so He can knock down some of the false structures you’ve built around yourself. He may need to strip you of your self-reliance until you know that apart from Him you can do nothing. Once you let down your walls of self-protection, He’ll knock down His.”

He was right. God often keeps us stuck exteriorly so that we almost have to work on ourselves interiorly. I still don’t know if I’m ready for some of those expansions in ministry, and I certainly wasn’t then. I have found that, in certain situations, once I was ready, God did open the door. Jesus is the Key.

Sometimes it’s just as tough for us when those we care about are feeling stuck. We want to fix the situation, rescue them. I’ve had this with clients. A couple may be in a very difficult marriage. Each is working hard to fix his or her part of the problem. Yet nothing seems to change. The temptation is to give up hope. “It’ll never get better.” The same can hold for someone who’s trying to overcome an addiction to alcohol, porn, or unhealthy relationships. These are people who are earnestly seeking the Lord amidst their troubles.

I of course do everything I can therapy-wise. But sometimes, nothing seems to “unstick” them. I point out the progress that I do see. I remind them (and myself) that there’s always  hope, that with God nothing is impossible.

With such clients, when I see they’re coming in soon, I may feel some dread. Not about them – but about my own feeling stuck, my sense of incompetence and helplessness. Repeatedly, it’s those sessions where God surprises me. The couple – without my help – have come unstuck. One or the other spouse has reached a breakthrough. Being stuck has forced them to look deeper within, take more responsibility, or pursue God more steadfastly. Sometimes – this should disturb me, but it doesn’t – things take an upturn only after my schedule hasn’t allowed them to come in for a while. Their not having me to rely on has thrown them on their own resources – and they find that those resources are enough. Perhaps they hadn’t had the confidence, before that, to use the communication skills we’d worked on in session without my assistance.

But it was more than that. “The pain of changing became less than the pain of staying the same.” They couldn’t bear being stuck any more. They realized something had to give. And it did. They opened themselves to grace as well. As in the 12th Promise of AA, “[they] discovered that God was doing for [them] what [they] could not do for [themselves].”

With one client stuck in self-hatred and helplessness, the first thaw in her frozenness was so simple. Her workplace named her the official party maker and high mucky-muck. Her job was to coordinate festivities in her area and keep things fun. She – who saw herself as unlikable and ungifted – discovered a particular gift for creatively rallying her co-workers. She spearheaded a crafts competition and appointed judges to award prizes for most attractive drawing and most creative use of color. She brought cookies and had costumes with a cookie theme. The sessions after these events her demeanor was transformed. She came alive. She realized that she could have fun and bring others joy as well.

Christmas is almost here. All of the world was feeling stuck – was in fact, stuck – in sin, darkness, hopelessness, and futility. Then Jesus came. The Key of David, God made flesh, came to Earth, unlocking prison doors, setting captives free. “O come, Thou Key of David, come/And open wide our heavenly home/Make safe the path that leads on high/And close the path to misery.” Merry Christmas!

There’ll be no blog post next week, as I enjoy the Christmas season with my family. 


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Back to Basics

Like the average committed Christian, I’ve heard thousands of sermons, reflections, and teachings on the Christian message. I’ve read a lot of books and articles about the same. And I’ve heard and read the Scriptures over and over again. But I inevitably forget the simplest truths of Christianity. I need to be reminded. I need to get back to basics.

Last Sunday, my friend and pastor, Fr. Mark Nolte, preached a typically inspiring homily. He meditated on the Gospel, Matthew 11:2-12, in which John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus asking, ““Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” The heart of his homily is that Jesus is the One we’re looking for, the fulfillment of all of our hearts’ desires. Simple. Profound. Inspiring. A needed reminder, for me, that it’s always, always about Jesus.

Here are a few more “back to basics” I have to return to repeatedly:

1) Jesus loves me. I really do love Jesus. I want to please Him and win souls for Him. I want others to get as excited about Him as I am. I don’t want to disappoint Him by falling into sin. I want to take His commandments seriously. I’m aware that there are so many areas in which I fall short. I can make harsh judgments of others. I’m much more ready to expound on my opinions than seek out what others have to say. It’s so easy to settle back into my comfortable life rather than reach out to the many less fortunate. I’m good at challenging people to live the Christian life more deeply, but poor at affirming the good that they’re already doing. Etc.

In the midst of my wanting to “do” for Jesus, even in the midst of my telling people how much Jesus loves themit’s ridiculously easy for me to forget that Jesus loves me. I forget that He loved me first. I forget that He did for me before I could ever do for anyone, that I’m saved by His grace, period, that anything loving I do is always a response to the love He gave me first. “Yes, Jesus loves me/Yes, Jesus loves me/Yes, Jesus loves me/The Bible tells me so.”

2) Jesus loves everybody. As noted above, one of my big struggles is with judgment. In our pathologically divided nation, I slide right into the “us vs. them” mentality. It’s particularly to do this with political and media figures, and with groups I don’t know very well. Scary how much easier it is to dislike and dehumanize those I’ve hardly met. I have to remind myself, about the people and groups I have the hardest time with, that Jesus poured out His blood for them. He loves them infinitely. Given the right (or wrong) circumstances, upbringing, genes, and culture, I would be perfectly capable of doing the worst atrocities that I judge in others. “There but for the grace of God go I.” Resentment, judgment (of others, not of their deeds), and contempt are luxuries I’m not allowed. Jesus loves me at my worst and best. He loves them at their worst and best. So must I.

3) Thank and praise God. That’s pretty simple, isn’t it? There are only about a thousand Scriptures and millions of Christian meditations that touch on that. But I get so focused on what could or should be that I forget to thank and praise God for what is: the starry skies, winter light, my health, the generosity and love of family and friends, the freedom to worship and practice my Christianity, and even to write this blog; mine and others’ gifts and faults; food, clothing, shelter all in excess of what I need.

Mary and I just went out for our 23rd anniversary. We have much to celebrate. We reviewed the years of our marriage over a pleasant dinner. What struck us most is the wonderful people that the Lord has placed in our lives at crucial junctures. We struggled some during our dating, engagement, and early years of marriage. We were so blessed by couples and individuals who stood by us, counseled us, prayed for us, and laughed with us. At our worst times, they affirmed that God had brought Mary and me together. They reminded us of all that the Lord had already brought us through. They testified that the Lord, “who began this good work in us, would bring it through to completion, right up to the very day of Christ Jesus” (Philip 1:6).

Just one example of so many things to be thankful for, if we only take the time to reflect on them.

So thank You, Jesus, for loving us. Help us to love everybody, just as You love everybody. Help us to thank and praise You always. It sounds almost childish. It’s very simple. It’s getting back to basics.

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