Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Real Baby Jesus

Of all the early Christian writings that did not make it into the Bible, my favorite is the "Infancy Gospel of Thomas", a collection of stories on the "Boyhood deeds of our Lord Jesus Christ." And of its many stories, my favorite is this:
Later he was going through the village again when a boy ran by and bumped him on the shoulder. Jesus got angry and said to him, "You won't continue your journey." And all of a sudden he fell down and died.
Some people saw what had happened and said, "Where has this boy come from? Everything he says happens instantly!"
The parents of the dead boy came to Joseph and blamed him, saying, "Because you have such a boy, you can't live with us in the village, or else teach him to bless and not curse. He's killing our children!"
(Greek Text, Chapter 4)
Who among us hasn't said or thought "Drop dead!" towards someone who hurt us? The difference is that we don't possess the power of God. Infancy Thomas portrays Jesus as one who has to grow and mature just like the rest of us, and along the way learns to use his talents and wisdom for the good of others. Here is the Incarnation in all its strange glory: a young man who is truly God, but also unmistakably human.

That is what I love about this gospel. It doesn't try to force the Incarnation into human logic. It celebrates it as a strange mystery: Jesus Christ, True God and True Human. Can we ever truly understand just how strange it must have been to be Jesus? The emotions and brain of a human being, along with the wisdom and power of God. What word is there to describe this reality other than strange?

The Truth that Infancy Thomas conveys is that the Incarnation is not this pretty feel-good image; it is messy and chaotic. It is not God coming to clean up our problems, but a Parent sharing in the beauty and wonder of their children's lives. Now, this may not be the Jesus, nor the God, that we want. It certainly wasn't for the bishops and theologians who rejected this gospel. But for at least a handful of average, ordinary Christians, Infancy Thomas spoke of a God who chose to be just like them. That is strange and glorious, and perhaps, worth a listen.

"You demand truth along your lines, your logic. Truth does not exist for you. You exist for it. Stop your arrogance and embrace the paradox of love."

As the final words of Infancy Thomas say, "To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen."

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Christmas Gift

Today we celebrate the only gift worth celebrating: grace.

Grace did not first enter the world at Christmas. It was present from the moment time began. God oozes it from their very pores. No, the Incarnation was not about giving grace, but seeing it clearly. We are such an insecure people. God knew that the only way we could feel their love was to become one of us. And so Jesus was born, that we might know just how much we are loved, for we are all family.

Unfortunately, this Truth has yet to sink in. You would think two millenniums would be enough time, but apparently not. Our insecurity is too strong. We fear the vulnerability of love. So we hide behind greed, vanity, lust, and violence. We confuse happiness for joy, even though we have neither for long. It is all so very sad.

But that is why God gave us Christmas. An annual reminder that it doesn't have to be this way, that grace is always there for the taking, if we just open our hearts and see.

"I cannot escape you; but why would I want to? You are beauty, glory, joy, ecstasy, and the shiver up my spine when I feel your touch upon my soul. You are something truly wonderful. A word like love can never fully contain your essence, but it will have to do, for you are warm and sublimely wonderful love."

These words are my Christmas gift: to you, to myself, and most importantly, to God. They come from the newest addition to "The Book of We Are", a journal entry I've titled "No Escape". They describe a vision I have glimpsed for over two decades, but have only really looked at in the last few months. And the more I gaze, the more aware I am of what matters and what does not. This is the gift of grace.

"You call and reveal, sharing your love, your being, with no expectation of response. But how could I not respond? You flood my soul and I cannot possibly contain it within. I cannot escape you, and I never will. Thank you my friend."

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The End

"What of that which you fear most: death? Yes, the end will come, not just for you, but for this world as a whole. Do not be afraid, for this is a great joy. It is not an end, just part of the process of life. That is not just good, it is wonderful."

Will the world end this Friday? Does it really matter? Either way, the dance of life and love will continue. So who cares what form it takes?

"Let the dance of life carry you far away from this corner of the universe. Journey to planets and places unimaginable. Watch a star be born, then turn around and watch another die. Touch a planet and give it the spark of life. Let yourself be the creator, just as you were created. Forge your children of the stars into a sword of love on the anvil of tragedy and sorrow. Let them fall horribly, knowing that they must learn to run on their own.

Now follow me back to our little planet. See it for what it is: a jeweled marble in the playground of the universe. Watch it spin wildly for eons, until our sun dozes to sleep, and we fade into the night. Laugh at the divine humor of it. Life and death on the grandest scale."

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Let Us Begin

Last night, I finally finished re-reading "Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi" by Donald Spoto. I am left humbled and speechless.

I hear Francis's voice over and over in my head: "Let us begin, brothers, to serve the Lord God -- for up until now, we have done little or nothing."

And then there is Spoto's description of the day Francis died:
Francis told his caregivers, "When you see that I have come to the end, put me out naked on the ground, and allow me to lie there for as long as it takes to walk a leisurely mile."
... His friends followed his instruction, and placed him stripped on the floor of his cell -- it was the full realization of the dramatic moment before Bishop Guido so many years earlier. Thus, as he lay dying and the afternoon began to fade, Francis's final prayer was a sublime gesture ... the action by which he expressed what he was and Whose child he was, about to be born again in eternity. In the core of his being, Francis was at last utterly dependent on God alone. His poverty was absolute: there was now nothing between him and God. After a brief time, he was clothed in his tunic again and gently lifted back on his straw bed.
His companions ... took his hands. "I have done what is mine," Francis whispered. "May Christ teach you what is yours to do."
There is something so utterly beautiful and wonderful about this scene, and how I long to be with God that completely. But I know that I have to do what is mine first.

I don't particularly like to write. It usually just feels like noise. There's already too much noise in our world, and the thought that I'm just adding to it makes my skin crawl. But God wants to me write; they want me to share what they show me. How can I say no? As Brother Francis said, “Who are You, my dearest God? And what am I but Your useless servant.”

So help me begin, Brother Francis, Brother Jesus, Sister Mary, and all of the Family, to serve the Lord our Parent -- for up until now, I have done little or nothing.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Follow Me On Twitter

Yes, I've taken one more step down the rabbit hole of social media and joined Twitter. You may now follow me, if you feel so inclined, via: @jwbidwell

I must say that I was very hesitant to do this. Social media seems to take on a life of its own. Can I use Twitter, or will Twitter use me? But then I read about Pope Benedict joining, and I figured I might as well give it a try. Fittingly, he is the first person I chose to follow. I cannot imagine him returning the favor, but one can hope!

And speaking of online connections, if anyone is actually reading this blog who is not one of my family or friends, I would really love to hear from you. If you feel called to do so, please send me an e-mail at:

Thank you to everyone who is reading this. I truly believe what I write: We are family.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Welcoming the Incarnation

Last Saturday, I stumbled upon a new documentary, "Wish Me Away", about country singer Chely Wright, and her process of accepting her sexuality and publicly coming out as a lesbian. What I watched, however, was the story of a woman denying grace for so many years, until she finally recognized that the Incarnation dwelt within her all along. Is that not the task set before each of us in this season of Advent?

"You are my child. More than that, you are myself. We are one, linked forever. What you feel, I feel. What I know, you know. We are love incarnate. We are life."

The Church has long taught that God became human, so that we could become God. But I say that Jesus came to open our eyes to a divinity that already coursed through our very souls. That awakening is what we should be preparing for this Advent, for it is the gift our family needs most this Christmas. The many ways we abuse our siblings, as I have written about the last few weeks, certainly testify to that.

Perhaps the depth of this need is why I was so powerfully moved by Wright's film. Her story begins with a childhood prayer that becomes a daily mantra asking God to take away her gayness. Such pleading led her where it leads too many of our brothers and sisters, to put a gun in her mouth. But then she makes one last prayer, for peace, and finally hears what God has been whispering to her all along: that she's already exactly who they created her to be. And she knows she has an obligation to speak this truth, to share it with all her siblings who still have their fingers on a trigger.

Wright's truth is this: homosexuality is not a "deep wound" needing to be cured; it is a beautiful part of God's design that demands to be embraced. Her witness is evidence of what I tried to convey last June in "The Gift of Homosexuality" post, that our LGBT siblings have much to teach us about love. The most important lesson of which flows from the Incarnation: love trumps biology and everything else.

There is also in Wright's story a general reminder for all. Her childhood prayer did not spring up out of nowhere; it had a source. Corporate religion loves wounds; they keep its version of a hospital in business. Unfortunately, that means it often inflicts the very damage it claims to heal. Is there one among us who hasn't suffered from friendly fire? But that is why God became one of us, so that we might be able to see the difference between our rules and their truth, and to know what really harms our family. That is the grace, the peace, that we wait for so longingly during this time of Advent.

"We are the song of life, of love, of a mother and father who made us by sheer force of will. So much of life is a paradox, but it is there that we find God the most. It is there, in the confusion and that mess that we must dwell. It is there that we experience true beauty, true joy. It is there that we can see something wonderful, something that sends a chill down our spine, and puts a smile on our face and a laugh in our heart, where we know with certainty who and what we are and why we are here in this time and place. It is in that moment that we are at peace."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Quilt

And I never really was able to tell you.
That's why I'm telling you now that you can't hear.
It ain't gonna be the same around here without you.
And I'm holding back a flood behind one tear.
And we'll go down to the post-mortem bar,
And catch up on the years that have passed between us,
And we'll tell our stories.
Do you remember when the world was just like a carnival opening up?
from the movie "Longtime Companion"
This Saturday, December 1st, is World AIDS Day. Of all the tributes to those we've lost, none is more profound to me than the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Perhaps because of the manner of its creation, it seems to radiate with life, as if the souls of the deceased imparted some of their grace upon the quilt's fabric. It may not have been conceived as religious art, but it is sacred nonetheless.

I only saw the Quilt once, when a portion of it was displayed on the Berkeley campus while I was a student there, but just looking at photographs of it stirs something inside of me. It reminds me so much of the Communion of Saints tapestries at the Cathedral here in Los Angeles. Both are tangible expressions of what I mean by "Family of the One", that we humans are siblings, not strangers.

And that is the worst tragedy of AIDS, past and present, that so many of those who died were ostracized and stigmatized. At the moment they most needed to feel part of a larger family, they were thrown away, like the lepers of old. The saddest panels on the Quilt are the ones "For those who died alone." If we do nothing else on Saturday, let us set aside our fears and judgments and vow that none of our brothers and sisters will ever die alone again, that each will know their family's love.

"You are my sibling. We are family. This is the essential truth of life. It is the only moral truth that really matters."

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving Enough

Yesterday, I encouraged you to proclaim: I have enough. Well, here's a practical way to do just that: Redefine Christmas
... a movement that re-imagines the way we look at gift giving during the holidays. In addition to the things we enjoy shopping for and giving every year, we often feel compelled to spend money and time on gifts with little meaning. Gifts which are soon forgotten. Rather than giving in to the convention of giving, we can give out – by redirecting some of that money to charity.
Consider giving your friends and family members donations to their favorite charities in their names. And ask your loved ones to do the same for you.
Giving this way is more personal. It's easier. And it can be more meaningful – to the receiver, the giver and the countless people and organizations who are truly in need.
Their website makes it easy to help others get their share of enough. What better way to give thanks, than to share our blessings. Let us all have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Poverty & Consumerism

“It is foolishness and a public madness to fill the cupboards with clothing and allow men who are created in God’s image and likeness to stand naked and trembling with cold, so that they can hardly hold themselves upright ... You are large and fat, you hold drinking parties until late at night, and sleep in a warm, soft bed. And do you not think of how you must give an account of your misuse of the gifts of God?”
... St. Chrysostom is not St. Francis. He does not ... give away all that he owns -- or urge his listeners to do so. That would be easier to dismiss ... He just insists, with ferocity, that Christians give away every single drop of excess. Chrysostom’s requirement is not absolute poverty, but a trickier, sometimes more elusive, ideal: enough.
Tomorrow, local TV news will be full of stories about charity Thanksgiving dinners for the poor and homeless. Only to be replaced the next day by stories of people being trampled at the Black Friday opening of some big box retail store. The real tragedy is that we will pat ourselves on the back for the first images and shake our heads at the latter ones, when we should be thoroughly ashamed by both.

In a nation as prosperous as ours, why the hell should anyone be poor or homeless at Thanksgiving? And given that so many of our brothers and sisters are suffering in this way, how the hell can we be so obsessed with getting a bargain on meaningless toys and gadgets? What is wrong with us that we feel so little shame about this?

Poverty is not some strange disease for which we haven't discovered a cure. It is the natural byproduct of an economic system driven by greed. That is what I see in both the Thanksgiving and Black Friday news stories: greed. We believe it is acceptable for some to live in unnecessary luxury, while others scrape by. Throwing a few dollars or volunteer hours at the poor may cover up the stench and assuage our meager guilt for a short time, but it does not erase the stain on our collective soul.

"Family is about sharing all that we have, not hoarding it. We do not earn anything; it is all a gift from our Parent."

It is time to stop defending an economic system and start standing up for our brothers and sisters. All we have to do is say: I have enough; I've had my fill and I don't need any more; Let someone else have their fair share.

I know, easier said than done. As Taylor-Coolman says, "Chrysostom’s requirement" is tricky and elusive. I am certainly no expert at it. But truth is truth, even when it goes unacknowledged or is being proclaimed by a hypocrite. And the truth is this: "The gifts of God" belong to all of us, not some of us, and our Parent wants each of their children to have enough. Can we create a society that honors and lives by this truth? Not a snowball's chance in hell. But that's not really the point now, is it?

"It is time for us to embrace our family, even though we will fail, and probably fail miserably. This is another paradox of our Creator. We can never truly be one family in this life and yet they compel us to try, they demand that we make the attempt."

At the end of the day, it's not about ending either poverty or consumerism, it's about standing with our brothers and sisters.

"Yes, this path will be terrifying. It is uncertain and full of risk. But we owe it to our family to embark upon the journey. It is who we are and why we were created: to love our family, all of it."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Who Would Jesus Kill?

I imagine that military service was a common theme in sermons last Sunday in honor of Veterans Day. I wonder, though, how many pastors were willing to delve into the morality of war itself. Probably not many, given that the average American is blissfully disconnected from the wars currently being fought in their name.

We can bury our heads in the sand, but the death and destruction will not go away so easily. War is the most utterly asinine behavior; the idea that we can resolve conflicts by killing people. It's pathetic and juvenile, and we cannot resist it.

I recently watched "The Kingdom", a movie about an FBI team helping to investigate a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia. One of the early scenes is a briefing where they learn that a fellow FBI agent was killed in the attack. The team leader consoles one of his colleagues by whispering something to her. Eventually, the team tracks down and kills the man who planned the attack. As he is dying, this elderly man also whispers words of consolation to his granddaughter. At the end of the movie, we learn that the wisdom imparted by both of these men is this: "We are going to kill them all."

At the end of the day, it's all about revenge. We can theorize about just war criteria all we want, but it's just a cover for simple playground vengeance. Jesus tells us to love our enemies and we think he's the naive lunatic! Absolutely asinine.

"It is past time that we recognize this family of the One, this fellowship of the One. They are tired of us ignoring, neglecting, and tarnishing it. This family is our Creator's greatest gift to us and we spit upon it constantly. Enough!"

Enough indeed.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Four More Years

In his victory speech last night, Barack Obama spoke words of truth that we need to hear, whether you voted for him or not, if we are to come together as a family:
While each of us will pursue our own individual dreams, we are an American family and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people.
... Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated ... But despite all our differences, most of us share certain hopes for America’s future.
... The role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government.
... We are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.
Mere rhetoric, or a real and genuine vision of who we are and who we can be?

"[Family] is not an organization to join, but a fellowship to accept. It is who we are at our very core. Family is birth, death, and all the joy and tragedy in between. We may run from it at moments, but we will never truly be apart from it."

"Family is about loving one another, not using one another. Family is about sharing all that we have, not hoarding it ... Family is about supporting our siblings, not controlling them. Family is about hope, not fear."

Obama himself defined hope as "that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting." Such hope tells us that regardless of who you voted for, we are family and we have an obligation to embrace one another, no matter the hardships it might bring or how little we may accomplish. Such hope is the best gift we Americans can ever give to our global family.

"You are my sibling. We are family. This is the essential truth of life. It is the only moral truth that really matters."

So whether you cried tears of joy or heartache last night, or just shrugged and went to bed, let us hope with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength. We have elected a brother to lead us for the next four years who is far from perfect, but who sees us as we truly are and who seeks to help us become the family that we were meant to be. Let us hope in him and in ourselves.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Reading Links - October 2012

"Public witness and Catholic citizenship"
Charles Chaput, Catholic Philly

"Were we able to welcome a fellow Jew, a registered sex offender, to pray?"
Fred Scherlinder Dobb, The Washington Post

"You Teach Us Our Faith"
Timothy Dolan, The Gospel in the Digital Age

"Multitasking is not your friend"
David Ousley, The Rector’s Chronicle

"At skid row karaoke, they are all songs of hope"
Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times

"Bedroom Window Spirituality"
Michael Rossmann, The Jesuit Post

"Shared Grace: Encountering Vatican II at a Methodist College"
Matthew Shadle, Catholic Moral Theology

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Reminder From Mother Nature

"The greatest lie, the greatest scam of our lives is that this world was created for us, for our pleasure and enjoyment, for our dominance. What stupid, arrogant animals we are. We were created for it. We are simply the audience. What would true art be without an audience? Only in this work, the artist painted us inside the canvas. We are art and audience all at the same time. We are part of the grandest work ever created, ever dreamed."

There is a certain irony to Hurricane Sandy's arrival a week before election day. We oftentimes act as if our political choices will decide the fate of the world. The Landlord just reminded us how very delusional we are.

Minutes and hours. That's all it took for air and water to decimate the work of human hands. Yes, we will repair and rebuild, and pat ourselves on the back for our ingenuity and perseverance. And one day, Mother Nature will snap her fingers again, and it will all come tumbling down, again. We pour endless amounts of time, treasure, and talent into our creations. But air, water, fire, and earth will always get the best of them.

We humans are a small and impotent part of the cosmos. It is not the reality we want, but it is the truth we need to accept. And let us do so joyfully, not grudgingly; for we are not diminishing ourselves. Rather, we are embracing our rightful place in a much grander family than we could ever dream of, if we can be humble enough to listen to Sister Hurricane, and all that she has to teach us.

"So much of life is a paradox, but it is there that we find God the most. It is there, in the confusion and that mess that we must dwell. It is there that we experience true beauty, true joy. It is there that we can see something wonderful, something that sends a chill down our spine, and puts a smile on our face and a laugh in our heart, where we know with certainty who and what we are and why we are here in this time and place."

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Catholic Vote

Which presidential candidate should a good Catholic vote for? I don't know, but plenty of pundits, and even a few bishops, are happy to give an answer. That's the corporate religion approach to politics. They buy into the false dualism of our two-party system, which demands that every person, community, and idea must be either Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. We know that states, and churches, are never just red or blue, but it sure does make it easier on bloggers and journalists if we pretend that they are. Unfortunately, many believe the gimmick is actually truth.

Way back in February, the Los Angeles Times published a pair of opinion articles by Charlotte Allen and Diana Wagman arguing that liberals and conservatives cannot talk to one another. Sounds silly, until you read this gem from Wagman: "We each would prefer the other just didn't exist." I wish I could believe that the attitudes espoused by these two women are only an aberration, but I've heard their echoes constantly in the political discourse offered up by both secular and religious voices during this election season. It's sad and pathetic, and not the way for siblings to treat one another.

"It is past time that we recognize this family of the One, this fellowship of the One. They are tired of us ignoring, neglecting, and tarnishing it. This family is our Creator's greatest gift to us and we spit upon it constantly. Enough!"

Jesus admonished us to "repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God." We do not honor our Parent when we allow ourselves to get swept up into the natural inflation of our politics, where small things look like life and death matters, and shrill, angry self-righteousness sounds prophetic. Our Church and our family deserve better. They belong to God, and cannot be carved up to suit the needs of political games. Yes, we do need to vote; Jesus did not absolve us of our obligation as citizens. But what matters is how we vote, not for whom we cast our ballot.

In saying this, however, I am not interested in assembling a guide or checklist for your conscience. There are plenty of Catholic entities filling that void already; perhaps too many, and some too eagerly. No, the Catholic Vote I have in mind is something very different, an antidote to the poison spread by people like Allen and Wagman, a simple practice that a theology professor named Gerald W. Schlabach urged us to take up for Lent this year: "Love the Enemy in Your Pew"
So this Lent, listen to uncomfortable voices in your community. Listen without arguing back, for as long as it takes to really hear. Listen deliberately. Listen for the back story behind positions you may never agree with. Debate later.
... Listen particularly to someone who represents all you think might be wrong with the Church. A Catholic neighbor ... who is so impassioned about some ways of defending life that he or she seems to ignore other ways. Or an openly gay Catholic who continues to receive the Eucharist or an activist campaigning to make same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Listen to the fan of that dangerous neoconservative columnist George Weigel, or the fan of that idealistic peacenik Jesuit John Dear.
I don't care which candidate you vote for in November. I do care that you vote to love and listen to those who will be voting for the other guy.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Grace of Vatican II

Last Thursday marked the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Much ink and pixels have been spilled in the last month or two arguing about the meaning of the Council. The worst of these debate the various "hermeneutics" theologians have constructed. This is the epitome of corporate religion: insisting that you need a graduate degree to properly understand the Gospel. Fortunately, there are others who simply offered us firsthand perspectives on life before and after Vatican II, such as Robert Blair Kaiser, who covered the Council for Time Magazine.
The Council changed the way we thought about God, about ourselves, about our spouses, our Protestant cousins, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Jews, even the way we thought about the Russians.
Let me share a family anecdote to support Kaiser's assertion. As a child, my mother attended Catholic schools, where she was taught that only baptized Catholics would go to heaven. Unfortunately, her father was not a Catholic. She knew he was a good man, but the Church told her that was not good enough. So she hid a scapular under his side of her parent's bed, in the hopes that if he died at night, maybe, just maybe, God would make an exception and let him into heaven after all.

That was the Church before Vatican II. An institution that would tell a little girl that no matter how good of a life her daddy lived, he was going to hell because he wasn't one of them. It was not said out of malice, but from a belief that this was a true expression of God's love. Scholars can trot out all the hermeneutics they want, but for me it's pretty simple: after the Council, we were no longer that Church.

John XXIII prayed that the Council would be a "new Pentecost" for the Church. I think he knew he was asking for something more than just a set of documents. The Council invited the Holy Spirit into the hearts of all the faithful, to help them reimagine who they were as a family, and she obliged by showing them how vast and majestic that family truly is. That grace is what Kaiser, my mother, and so many others experienced. Our challenge is to acknowledge that this grace did not vanish when Vatican II ended.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A New Direction, An Eternal Faith

Last Friday, my intention was to write about Donald Spoto's biography of Francis of Assisi "Reluctant Saint" in honor of the saint's feast the day before. Obviously, that didn't happen. Once again, the right words refused to come, for I have lost my way.

This blog was never supposed to be a "blog." It is a tool to promote a revelation, no more, no less. But then I decided to expand the content and somehow it morphed into being like all of the other religion blogs out there that endlessly talk over one another. It cannot be that, because that can never convey a revelation that is inherently simple.

"Why do you babble so much about me? So much time and energy, for what purpose? What more is there to understand about us than love? You think too much and feel too little. You talk too much and love too little."

Fittingly, my need to make a course correction with this blog takes place on the eve of the opening of the Year of Faith, which is "an opportunity for Catholics to experience a conversion - to turn back to Jesus and enter into a deeper relationship with him." This idea of conversion is also a key theme in Spoto's book:
The life of Francis of Assisi and the journey of his progress toward God had meant accepting a series of corrections and simplifications, a refining of his understanding about what God had wanted of him. We might even say that Francis had constantly to revise what he believed would honor God. Hence Francis's conversion was the work of a lifetime, with all its autumns and winters; it was not the achievement of an afternoon in springtime.
Life and faith is a journey, and not always an easy one. But why? If faith is just about believing the right things, being able to say the creed without your fingers crossed or fervently proclaiming that Jesus is your lord and savior, then how does that demand a journey? Well, here's one piece of the puzzle:
Take the earliest gospel, which is probably Mark. Right after Jesus’ baptism, Jesus goes out to proclaim his message: “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the Good News.”
I am consistently asking my students, “What’s the good news?” It’s not that Jesus died and came back, because this is only the first chapter. He hasn’t yet mentioned the passion. Nobody knows he’s going to die. The good news has to be something else.
So the good news has to be what you get from the parables. The good news has to be the Sermon on the Mount. The good news has to be the healings, which show care for people in the community.
The good news is that everyone is part of the family. It doesn’t matter what your income level is. That’s even true of sinners and tax collectors, people who have removed themselves from the common welfare by working for the occupation government, disrupting the sense of community by stealing, or destroying marriage by committing adultery. Jesus says, “You know what? You’ve got a role in this community, too.”
That’s not belief; that’s action. It is reconciliation, and it’s family values in their best form possible.
And here's a second:
Catholic stories are incarnational, they speak of God incarnate in the human condition at Christmas time and God going down to the valley of death with us and returning alive with us on Easter. They speak of a community of the followers of Jesus bonding with one another to pass on the heritage which is formed by the stories. The doctrines are latent in the stories. Both are necessary, but the stories come first. Alas, for much of which passes for Catholic religious education, the stories are discarded in favor of the doctrines. All the Trinitarian and Christological controversies in the early Church, as important as they may be, do not have the appeal or the value of the image of Madonna and Child.
... It is worth noting that it took four centuries to make the doctrine reasonably precise while the story was there at the beginning. Both require one another, but it is the story that appeals to the total human. It is the beauty of the story which holds Catholics to their heritage.
It's about relationship, from the beginning of our story as humans to the foundation of the Church, it's always been about relationships.

"You are my child. More than that, you are myself. We are one, linked forever. What you feel, I feel. What I know, you know. We are love incarnate. We are life."

"You are my sibling. We are family. This is the essential truth of life. It is the only moral truth that really matters."

Faith is a relationship, not only with God but with all of our siblings alive and dead, and relationships are always journeys. Faith is not defined by the stretches when we stay on the path, but by how we deal with the potholes along the way, and how we respond to getting lost. Faith is not found in a moment or a year, but only through a lifetime.

And what of my faith? Where is my journey headed now? Spoto's book gave me a quote from Francis that I use on all of my websites: "Who are You, my dearest God? And what am I but Your useless servant."
This is a sublime prayer, not the expression of a philosophical inquiry about the nature of God and the self. It faces with absolute gravity the idea that God is utterly unknowable - as is the deepest truth of one's own life. But it is also, by the very fact of being addressed to God, a statement of unreserved conviction about the supreme reality of God, Who brings sense out of Francis's own emptiness and absurdity, his uselessness.
It is the prayer of a man who has felt God's touch and just wants to be obedient to that call. It is my prayer, and the only destination worth traveling to.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Injustices We Ignore

On Monday, the Los Angeles Times published an article about Damon Thibodeaux, a death row inmate who was exonerated last week. I must admit that the story did not capture my attention until I read the following letter to the editor today:
The NFL's replacement referees blow a game-deciding call and it's decried as the unthinkable finally happening. The calamity is front-page news and even commands the attention of the White House. But the news that yet another person on death row has been freed based on DNA evidence, the 18th death row inmate and 300th overall, elicits barely a yawn and is buried inside The Times ... Granted, sentencing someone to death for a murder he didn't commit isn't anywhere near as important as the Seattle Seahawks stealing a touchdown, but it does reflect pretty serious and systemic failures of the criminal justice system that merit more attention than they are getting.
I'm not sure which is worse, the miscarriages of justice themselves, or the fact that we just don't seem to care that they take place. The easy response is to blame the media for having poor focus, but that's just a cop-out. The media gives us what we want, and we choose trivialities and amusement every day of the week. It's time to grow up.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Weekly Reading (9/24-9/30)

"'Two Doors to the Same Cafeteria'"
David Cloutier, Catholic Moral Theology

"Dorothy Days Dynamic Orthodoxy"
William Doino, First Things

"Feast of St. Vincent DePaul"
Timothy Dolan & Nicholas DiMarzio, The Gospel in the Digital Age

"Cultural Satire, Gangnam Style"
Paddy Gilger, The Jesuit Post

"The High Holidays and Reasons Limits"
Noah Glyn, First Things

"U.S. drone policy: Counterterrorism, or just plain terrorism?"
Liz Lefebvre, U.S. Catholic

"How Vocations Happen (It Could Happen to You)"
Paul Lickteig, The Jesuit Post

Friday, September 28, 2012

"Into Great Silence" (2005)

Yes, I missed another Wednesday post. I was planning to write something on politics, but the words just wouldn't come. Sometimes it feels like there is just too much noise in the world, especially on the internet. What good does it do?

"Into Great Silence" is a movie about a place, the Grande Chartreuse monastery of the Carthusian order, where the noise is consciously left behind in order to draw close to all that really matters. The documentary opens with the passage from the First Book of Kings where God appears to Elijah not as a mighty wind, earthquake, or fire, but as "a light silent sound." Fittingly, it contains none of commentary and analysis typical of documentaries. Instead, we simply spend nearly three hours experiencing the lives of these monks. It is not a life most of us would choose to live, but we should be grateful that some do, bearing witness to the truth that lies beyond the noise.

"Why do you babble so much about me? So much time and energy, for what purpose? What more is there to understand about us than love? You think too much and feel too little. You talk too much and love too little. It is the curse of your consciousness. You can see enough to open the door, but not enough to find your way through it. Close your eyes and the path will be illuminated soon enough."

Check out this movie on Catholic News Service, IMDb, Wikipedia, or YouTube.

Friday, September 21, 2012

"Learning To Fly", Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

So I started out for God knows where; I guess I'll know when I get there.
Life, faith, trust, love ... all of it is a journey without a set route or destination. It's part of the beauty of existence. And "Learning To Fly" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is the perfect soundtrack for journeys of all kinds.

"Life unfolds as it should. Stop and enjoy the process ... that is why you are here, that is why you were created."

Check out this song on Wikipedia, YouTube, or Amazon.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Embracing Trust

My wife and I are flying to Kansas tomorrow. She has a job interview; I'm going along for moral support. Up until the last few years, I enjoyed flying. It was adventurous and exotic. Somewhere along the way, however, I turned into a "white-knuckle flyer." (On my last flight, I couldn't stop saying "Hail Marys.") I know that statistically I have more to fear from the car ride to LAX than the flight itself, but emotions don't always behave rationally. Besides, the odds of winning the lottery suck too, but someone wins.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, my fear of flying is a manifestation of much larger fears about a vocation that constantly challenges me to surrender control of my life and trust completely in God's plan. I am called to share a revelation that I cannot make anyone believe, or even read. It's entirely possible that I am only supposed to plant a seed that will never sprout in my lifetime. As I have embraced my vocation more and more in the last few years, all that fear had to go somewhere. What activity demands surrendering control and placing trust in someone you've never met more than air travel?

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I'm not alone in this situation. The reality is that we have far less control over life than we would like to think. We can allow this unpredictability to paralyze us, or we can trust that the chaos does make sense somehow. There is a reason human beings keep coming back to religion.

So tomorrow will be an exercise in trust. But I may say a few "Hail Marys" too!

Friday, September 14, 2012

"Live Like We're Dying", Kris Allen

Yesterday, The Huffington Post gave us a tragic example of of how YOLO is used in all the wrong ways. Kris Allen's "Live Like We're Dying" gets it right:
... How come we don’t say I love you enough till it’s too late?
... Our hearts are hungry for a food that won’t come. And we could make a feast from these crumbs.
... If your plane fell out of the skies, who would you call with your last goodbye? Should be so careful who we left out of our lives.
... You never see a crash till it’s head on. Why do we think we’re right when we’re dead wrong? You never know a good thing till it’s gone.
... We only got 86,400 seconds in a day to turn it all around or to throw it all away. Gotta tell them that we love them while we got the chance to say. Gotta live like we’re dying.
Life is short and unpredictable. If what you're doing isn't about love, then what the hell is the point?

Check out this song on Wikipedia, YouTube, or Amazon.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

You Only Live Once

One of the hidden benefits of teaching high school is an increased awareness of pop culture trends. That's how I came to know the slogan "you only live once" or YOLO. On the surface, it sounds like an updated version of "carpe diem." And as we passed through another anniversary of September 11th yesterday, such a motto seems not only reasonable, but perhaps admirable and even righteous.

But what I haven't shared yet is the context of my "education" about YOLO: a class discussion on the morality of teenage use of alcohol and drugs. You see, YOLO is the rationalization of the moment for young adult rebellion and experimentation. Which is why you're most likely to hear it being shouted by drunks at a frat party.

The problem is not with the phrase itself. I'm sure "carpe diem" was also used as an excuse for irresponsibility when it was first popularized. Living each day as if it were your last is a noble concept, if your definition of a good life is full of noble values. Part of what we memorialize each September 11th is the nobility of sacrificing one's life for the sake of others. We do this because it allows us to forget that every other day we are surrounded by a superficial culture, full of trivialities, that we have painstakingly created. Is it any wonder that our youth use YOLO the way they do?

What if YOLO was used instead to celebrate acts of service, kindness, forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and generosity? What if YOLO was used as a sign of honor for those who, on September 11, 2001 and every day before and since, lived the truth Jesus shared with us: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." I'd say that was the ultimate YOLO.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Weekly Reading (9/03-9/09)

"Finding a voice for Eva"
Deena Goldstone, Los Angeles Times

"Deportees to Mexico's Tamaulipas preyed upon by gangs"
Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times

"What Difference Listening Makes"
Matt Spotts, The Jesuit Post

"Dear Democratic Catholics"
Michael Sean Winters, National Catholic Reporter

"Faithful Citizenship: The Audacity of Responsibility"
Jessica Wrobleski, Catholic Moral Theology

"DNC 2012 - Hope and Change 2"
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Friday, September 7, 2012

"Friday Night Lights" (2006-2011)

In keeping with my original theme for the week, I wanted to select something football-related for today. But "Friday Night Lights" is a TV series about much more than just playing a game. I think the spirit of the show is best encapsulated by Coach Taylor's motto for his teams: "Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can't Lose!" The words speak of living with purpose and passion, but they are always spoken as a group, not as a lone individual. That is because, at its core, the show is about family: the ones we have and, more importantly, the ones we create.

There are certainly lots of great lessons to be found in the show's episodes: that grace doesn't always come in a pretty package, that life is a constant series of choices and they all count, that any relationship worth having requires work and compromise, that marriage is fundamentally an act of hope, that we all have dreams and every one of them is beautiful. But its story about family is what makes "FNL" sacred.

"You are my sibling. We are family. This is the essential truth of life. It is the only moral truth that really matters."

Check out this TV show on Grantland, IMDb, Wikipedia, or YouTube.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Accepting Responsibility

With the start of the college football season this past weekend, I was planning to write a comparison of two sports columns by Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times: one on the well-known failures at Penn State and the other about an unsung act of honor by Caltech. But when I read today's paper, I found a more significant example of what it means to accept responsibility for the consequences of one's actions.

The story came from Times columnist Steve Lopez, who wrote about John Whitaker, a former child actor and recovering drug addict, "addressing a rally to raise awareness of cartel violence in Mexico, and he started off by apologizing to the Mexican mothers he'd just heard speak about losing children in the drug wars."
One of the steps of his recovery, Whitaker said, "was to make reparations for the harms I caused."
... "One way I can make reparation is to meet with these families, and every time I heard a name — when a mother said this is my son Rudolfo, this is my son Enrique, this is my daughter Margarita — I felt a pain.... We people in recovery, and in the consumer world, are to blame for some of it, and we've got to take responsibility."
Lopez has written other columns recently about some of these Mexican mothers and the Caravan for Peace currently taking them across the U.S. to share their stories. But he also wrote in June about the rationalizations we Americans use to keep drug violence "conveniently distant." We hear the stories, but then push them out of our minds. We recognize our connection to them, but then minimize our culpability. It is a moral failure just as great as that of Penn State, and we should be no less ashamed of ourselves ... except for John Whitaker, and those like him, who recognize in these stories not strangers, but family, and who strive to be better siblings because of it.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Weekly Reading (8/27-9/02)

"Voting Against Intrinsically Evil Acts: A Working List?"
Jana Bennett, Catholic Moral Theology

"Dolan, Campbell at GOP/Dem conventions = bad idea"
Bryan Cones, U.S. Catholic

"God’s Work of Art"
Timothy Dolan, The Gospel in the Digital Age

"America: 'The Greatest Islamic Country'"
Katherine Infantine, First Things

"Dear Republican Catholics"
Michael Sean Winters, National Catholic Reporter

"RNC 2012 - The Road to Jeb Bush 2016"
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Friday, August 31, 2012

"You’re not special. Because everyone is.", David McCullough

Back in June, I read an essay in the Los Angeles Times commenting on a graduation speech at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, given by faculty member David McCullough, Jr. The speech was "a gospel that bluntly reminded us how unspecial we are" and the speaker was "branded a hero by Rush Limbaugh." I was curious, but as the speech seemed like an extended scolding, I put the topic on the back burner.

For whatever reason, I recently got around to watching McCullough's speech and, not surprisingly, realized that the extensive media commentary had grossly misinterpreted it. What was almost universally labeled as the "You are not special" speech was really about something much deeper and more profound. It was not an adult ranting at self-absorbed teenagers and the culture that coddled them, it was a teacher's final plea to his students to embrace a life of goodness, selflessness, and love.
Do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance. Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about, lest you too find yourself on the wrong side of a Baltimore Orioles comparison. Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages. And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might. And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer.
... Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.
McCullough himself reinforced this last line as his primary message in an article he wrote for Newsweek Magazine on the reaction to his speech: "None of them, I said, matters more than anyone else, because everyone is special, everyone matters - all 6.8 billion of us. Simple logic, really."

It is the simple recognition of our fellow human beings as our brothers and sisters, our family, and allowing that knowledge to guide our lives. Simple indeed.

Check out this speech on YouTube or at The Swellesley Report.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mystery & Mysticism

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery - even if mixed with fear - that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms - it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavour to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.
Albert Einstein, "The World as I See It"
I was reminded of this quote by a recent opinion article in the Los Angeles Times on the "sweet mystery" of science. The author, university professor David Barash, writes that "It's not what science knows, but what it doesn't, that really matters," for "it's only by pursuing the unknown that we obtain knowledge." Unfortunately, his understanding of mystery is not quite as grand as Einstein's.
We are surrounded by mysteries, far more than are dreamt of in anyone's philosophy. But don't get the wrong idea, Horatio: Mystery is not the same as mysticism, and I'm not referring to some sort of ineffable, spiritualistic claptrap beyond the reach of natural law and human understanding. Just as "weeds" are plants that haven't yet been assigned a value, scientific mysteries are simply good questions waiting for answers.
... "Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious," writes Richard Dawkins. "Scientists exult in mystery for a different reason: It gives them something to do."
There is something sad and utilitarian about Barash's description of mystery. And his dismissal of mysticism seems rather petty. I doubt Einstein saw himself as a mystic, but I cannot think of a better term for someone with his religious sensibility. He exulted in mystery, not because it gave him "something to do," but because he recognized a sacred beauty within it. And clearly he was not someone who wanted the mysterious to stay that way, yet he was also willing to acknowledge "the existence of something we cannot penetrate." Are Einstein's words just "ineffable, spiritualistic claptrap," or was he identifying the true "sweet mystery" of life?

Friday, August 24, 2012

"Appalachian Spring", Aaron Copland

Obviously, I failed to publish a post on Wednesday. I've been having difficulty getting my words to feel right for the last couple of weeks. But why should they, given that most of my life doesn't feel right at the moment. As I wrote last Friday, classes have resumed at my old school, and I cannot help but question my decision to leave and go public with "my" revelation. Yes, I "know" that I did the right thing, but that doesn't make me feel any better. Yes, I "knew" how challenging this task would be, but that doesn't make me feel better either. To be bluntly honest, there have been a lot of days lately where I wanted to kick God in the balls for giving me this job, not that she has balls, but you know what I mean. I don't plan on quitting, I just want to share the pain; then I think about the cross and my "suffering" seems rather petty.

So where does that leave me? It leaves me to muddle on through as best as I can. Which, when you think about it, is really what life is all about. We can pretend that humanity knows what it's doing, but that's just wishful thinking. All of creation is just muddling on through, and maybe that's the point. Maybe that's the only thing that truly makes sense. We can plan, orchestrate, and choreograph all we want, but sometimes we just have to let the music and dance of life take over.

And so for today I offer to you "Appalachian Spring" by Aaron Copland. If there was ever a soundtrack for Creation, this is it. You can feel the noise and bustle of life in its notes. It takes you to grand places, but it starts and finishes with peace. That is what I feel most when I listen to it: peace. And that is what I desire most right now: peace.

Check out this music on Wikipedia, YouTube, or Amazon.

Friday, August 17, 2012

"Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song)", Amy Grant

Yesterday was the first day of classes at the school where I used to teach. I know that I made the right decision to leave, but I still miss it, especially the students. So a bit of nostalgia feels entirely in order right about now.

Being a Catholic school, we were expected to begin each class with a prayer. Rather than having the students mindlessly recite an "Our Father", I liked to use a song as a reflection on that day's lesson topic. In the last few years, the very first song I played was "Breath of Heaven" by Amy Grant, from her 1992 Christmas album. It imagines Mary's thoughts and emotions as the birth of Jesus draws near.
I have traveled many moonless nights, cold and weary with a babe inside, and I wonder what I’ve done. Holy Father you have come and chosen me now to carry your son.
I am waiting in a silent prayer. I am frightened by the load I bear. In a world as cold as stone, must I walk this path alone. Be with me now; be with me now.
Breath of Heaven, hold me together, be forever near me, Breath of Heaven. Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness, pour over me your holiness for you are holy, Breath of Heaven.
Do you wonder as you watch my face, if a wiser one should have had my place? But I offer all I am for the mercy of your plan. Help me be strong; help me be; help me.
I used these words in the past to begin a very long conversation with my students on the meaning and practice of faith. I use them today to remind myself about the kind of faith I aspire to live. As I wrote on Wednesday's "Good News" post for the Solemnity of the Assumption, Sister Mary is the ultimate model of fidelity to God's love.

Check out this song on YouTube or Amazon.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Violence Neverending

In the two weeks since I wrote about the Colorado massacre, several more shootings have taken place. I wasn't planning to write about this subject again so soon, but then I saw a segment on the local news about my suburban hometown police department conducting a training exercise for responding to these types of situations. It feels like madness is in the air, and I cannot ignore it.

As I said two weeks ago, this violence is not incomprehensible. We like to pretend that it is, because such a fiction allows us to avoid uncomfortable truths. The perpetrators of these acts are doing the same thing most Americans endorse: using death to solve a problem. We are "shocked" when they do so out of personal frustration, yet we find warfare or abortion perfectly legitimate. Just which one of us is truly insane?

We have a choice. We can put away the guns and bombs, all of them, or we can keep pretending to be shocked when the chickens come home to roost. Which will it be?

Friday, August 10, 2012

"Miracle" (2004)

With the London Games coming to a close on Sunday, an Olympics movie seemed appropriate for today's post. "Miracle" is a dramatization of the 1980 U.S. ice hockey team, from their initial formation to their victory at the Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York. While it obviously focuses on the "Miracle on Ice" win over the Soviets, the heart of the film is its depiction of head coach Herb Brooks, played by Kurt Russell, and the lessons he imparts to his athletes. The final scene is of the medal ceremony, where Russell, as Brooks, does a voiceover that sums it up beautifully:
I've often been asked in the years since Lake Placid, what was the best moment for me? Well it was here: the sight of twenty young men of such differing backgrounds, now standing as one. Young men willing to sacrifice so much of themselves, all for an unknown. A few years later the U.S. began using professional athletes at the Games: Dream Teams. I always found that term ironic, because now that we have Dream Teams, we seldom ever get to dream. But on one weekend, as America and the world watched, a group of remarkable young men gave the nation what it needed most: a chance for one night not only to dream, but a chance once again to believe.
This is America at its best. Check out this movie on IMDb, Wikipedia, or YouTube.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Ugly American Royalty

The London Olympics is just the latest event where we Americans have been treated to the curiosity that is the British Royal Family. They are like the cheerleaders-in-chief, and not just for their national teams, but for their entire people. But should Americans admire them, or do they represent something anathema to who we are as a people? Dan Turner of the Los Angeles Times answered this question in an editorial on the 4th of July, as well as in a follow-up piece a few days later, both of which celebrated the Founding Fathers' rejection of monarchy, and the subjugation that goes with it.
I cannot imagine a more anti-monarchist document than the Declaration of Independence. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." To believe these words is to define oneself as an enemy of kings because the most fundamental aspect of kingship is inequality: The king is more equal than you are.
But do we really believe in this radical equality? We sure don't seem to live that way, as a Times reader pointed out in a letter to the editor: "We bow and curtsy far lower than the Brits. Here, cash is king and money rules."

A local example of this was highlighted by another Times editorial this May. Dozens of Newport Beach residents have illegally added landscaping to public beaches adjacent to their property, thereby discouraging the average person from using land belonging to the people of California, because the residents would prefer that space to be their own private backyard. Judging by the periodic news reports, this practice seems to be widespread in the wealthier beach communities of Southern California. I guess some of us are more equal than the rest. In fact, some of the residents plan to hire lawyers to prevent the landscaping's removal. As the Times incredulously remarked: "Really? On what grounds?" Apparently, royalty need never be ashamed of itself.

And so it seems that we did not banish royalty from our shores as much as we like to think. In many ways, the major populist movements of today are still fighting this battle. Occupy Wall Street tells us that the robber barons of history are alive and well in the present. The Tea Party rails against a snobbish elite that looks down its noses at the common people as if they were country bumpkins. Both claim that we are still being subjugated by a handful of lords and ladies who possess undeserved power.

If monarchy is inevitable, then perhaps our cousins were on to something when they retained their version. After all, how many modern American princes have served their country by putting their own lives on the line, as William, Harry, and many of their kin have done? You can almost hear the wayward residents of Newport Beach chant "let them eat cake," as they lounge on their lawns as squatters on our land.

Friday, August 3, 2012

"Finding Neverland" (2004)

After writing about violence the last few posts, something a bit more cheery seems to be in order for today. "Finding Neverland" is a dramatization of the friendship between playwright J.M. Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family, who provided the inspiration for "Peter Pan". It is a real life story of the power of the human mind.

My favorite part of the movie takes place on opening night. Barrie has had twenty-five seats, scattered throughout the theater, held aside for a group of special guests, who turn out to be children from a local orphanage. He knows that "Peter Pan" depends on the kind of imagination that adults are conditioned to see as silliness, but that children find magical. As the children watch the play with eyes full of wonder and delight, the adults are happily swept along to Neverland with them.

This is what Jesus had in mind when he urged us to "accept the kingdom of God like a child." He was not telling us to embrace a childish, immature faith, but a childlike one full of wonder and delight at the beauty and adventure of life.

"Look out your window. It doesn’t matter which one. They all will do. What do you see? Trees, hills, grass, concrete, metal bars, trash, crap, and all the other debris of modern life? No, you see something wonderful, something magical and wondrous ... What you see is a gift. A gift more precious than anything, ANYTHING that has or ever will be imagined by human intelligence."

Check out this movie on IMDb, Wikipedia, or YouTube.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Our Love of Violence

"Americans of faith today need to be challenged by a very direct question: do you trust God or guns more?" This was the response of Susan Thistlethwaite to the massacre in Aurora, Colorado. The people's answer to her query seems to be clear.

Mass shootings are not incomprehensible, despite what we tell ourselves. They are a natural by-product of our belief that war, abortion, capital punishment, and other forms of violence can successfully resolve our societal and individual problems. As long as such attitudes are the norm, some people will turn to violence as an outlet for their own frustrations. They will spew it like vomit, and no one will be left untouched.

This chaotic violence is not a modern phenomenon. Technology may have increased the destructiveness of the acts and our awareness of them, but this sort of violence has been with us since we first chose to use death to "fix things." Which, according to the Bible, was right from the beginning. And in spite of all that humanity has learned in the centuries since then, we cling stubbornly and insanely to that attitude. As much as I abhor the "culture of death" label, perhaps John Paul was on to something.

So how do we begin to trust God more than guns? We could start by actually listening to Jesus when he tells us to love our enemies. He is not being naive and impractical. He is telling us that violence is a weed that flourishes easily and chokes even those who think they can use it righteously. Only love can truly fix anything.

"Our brother calls us to love, love God, love your neighbor, love. How hard is that? What are you afraid of? If he was willing to die to love you, what’s your excuse for not loving those you fail to understand, those you despise, those you hate?"

We cannot embrace both God and violence. So which will you choose to trust?

Friday, July 27, 2012

"Conspiracy" (2001)

On January 20, 1942, a small group of Nazi officials met at a villa near Berlin. Known to history as the Wannsee Conference, the meeting was called by Reinhard Heydrich to solidify control over and ensure support for his plan regarding the "final solution of the Jewish question." It was a key moment in the execution of the Holocaust.

"Conspiracy" is a dramatization of this event. The screenplay was based on the lone surviving copy of the minutes prepared by Heydrich's deputy, Adolf Eichmann, and does its best to be faithful to the actual timing and content of the meeting. This is not a typical war movie, as it is driven entirely by dialogue, mostly of the officials around the conference table. A YouTube user summed it up best: "No blood, no CGI, no make-up effects ... and still a very bone-chilling horror film!"

When my wife and I first saw it, she was disturbed by the way that it humanizes the meeting's participants. They are presented as a variety of personalities, each of them possessing a mixed bag of qualities, ones both admirable and vile. To her, Nazis were inhuman and should be portrayed as such. For me, this depiction is what makes the movie so powerful. It is a reminder that we are all capable of evil.

We tend to label evil acts as senseless, monstrous, incomprehensible. We approach them as if they confuse us. It is our way of pretending that evil is the work of demonic forces, rather than the actions of our fellow human beings. We want to hold evil as far away from us as possible. If it gets too close, if it looks too human, we might have to confront the evil we ourselves have tolerated or even participated in. The scary truth that "Conspiracy" reveals, one we so desperately want to avoid, is that the Holocaust and other genocides were perpetrated by people not so different than us.

Check out this movie on IMDb, Wikipedia, or YouTube.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

God's Plan

"From your perspective, you see love and hate, good and evil, right and wrong. I see what is and what will be, and what I see is love and good, always."

To God, there is meaning and purpose in everything, including tragedy. Whether in the form of a massacre in Colorado or a single death on the streets of Los Angeles, every woe that we experience is part of the grand and beautiful tapestry that is life. This is a difficult truth, which is why we so rarely understand it.

A recent example of our cluelessness in this regard came from George Zimmerman, who in an interview with Fox News on the shooting of Trayvon Martin said, "I feel that it was all God’s plan, and for me to second-guess it or judge it ..."

The key word in the revelation is "perspective." God gets the macro viewpoint; ours is just the micro version. We can glimpse the whole design, but we cannot live within that vision. Our minds are not made to handle it. We need to sort our thoughts and actions into "love and hate, good and evil, right and wrong." Such judgments do not deny the truth of this revelation; they help us to approach it with a sense of humility. Otherwise, we are liable to mistake our pinhole for God's panorama.

Which is exactly what Zimmerman did. In the interview, he said that he does not regret his actions that led to the fatal confrontation, nor would he change them. He is a fool. Regret and shame keep us honest when we replace God's will with our own. Violence is an ugly evil, even if we find ways to justify and excuse it. It always leaves a stain on one's soul. Yes, God's grace will bring glory from the depths of evil. But we also have a role to play. Does God's plan work because of us, or in spite of us?